An entrepreneur and a venture capitalist walk into a bar in the 1990’s. They have a few drinks. The entrepreneur scribbles an idea on the back of a napkin. The VC hands over a multi-million-dollar check. The entrepreneur has no product, no patent, no customers or revenues. The VC is happy to now own more than half of nothing, confident of a 10x return on the public offering expected in, say, 18 months. After dropping the names of a law firm and PR agency to direct some of that money to, the VC leaves the bar. The entrepreneur has a few more drinks to celebrate. Then everything starts going to hell. Unless you found humor in the tech bubble bursting 15 years ago, there is no punch line.
Though scenarios like this actually happened, the false hope sparked by a few diamonds left thousands in the rough. The joke of irrational over-exuberance ended in a hurry, and the risk capital industry and the market for IPOs have never completely recovered.
Since then, our firm has counseled hundreds of start-up companies that, unless you’re a serial entrepreneur with a successful track record, you need tangible product and sales trajectories before getting even close to the launch pad of high-risk capitalization these days. At least that’s what I had been telling Ryan Wood for years. I’d always been impressed with his company, Frontline Aerospace, and his concepts – though no products, I mostly marveled at his persistence, which is perhaps the single most important ingredient to career and company success in all situations.
Wood spent eight years and much of his own net worth to design, patent and prototype two bolt-on retrofit products – the MicroFire™ recuperator and the IsoCool™ compressor technology – that together can increase power and reduce fuel consumption by 10 to 40 percent, depending on the application, for tens of thousands of gas-turbine engines, including the Rolls Royce Model 250 family widely deployed in helicopters and drones. “Using advanced manufacturing and materials to increase the efficiencies of heat transfer and combustion processes, Frontline is bringing fuel efficiency benefits to market that, if the proof-of-concept results are even half right, will be truly disruptive to a multi-billion-dollar industry,” said Lt. Gen. Timothy A. Kinnan, 34-year Air Force veteran, former Lockheed vice president, and advisor on Frontline’s board. “With the thermodynamic performance numbers we’re seeing with our products, turbine engines may approach the efficiency levels we see in diesel engines, which is mind boggling. It’s just a matter of fabricating at this point, and these products will sell themselves.”
Sounds great. And, finally, the story resonated with a private family office with the industry expertise to see not only the potential for Frontline, but the promise to enter and succeed in a multi-billion-dollar market. Ryan finally got his funding — $2 million and enough to get on the launchpad for production and sales.
Frontline is poised to solve a business problem for companies that run gas turbine engines. But they are also poised to deliver a solution to reduce fossil fuel emissions by orders of magnitude in many applications, and have drawn attention in the cleantech space. After several years applying, Wood was honored to be selected out of hundreds of applicants to present at the recent National Renewable Energy Lab’s (NREL) prestigious Industry Growth Forum. The photo shows Ryan (right) networking at the IGF with Nick Peters of energy development firm Factor(E) Ventures.
Congrats to Ryan, and to his entrepreneurial persistence. It’s encouraging today to see a great business idea actually get to the launch pad with venture funding behind it before the founder has removed all that risk from the risk capital.