Beyond the Pitch
Simple-Fill: Changing the Way America Fuels Its Vehicles
What if an Ohio startup enabled the energy industry to create a fuel that goes further for less?
Even though the price of gasoline is down for now, is there any business impacted by fuel prices that really believes this respite is going to last? Is there any fleet manager, executive, or consumer who wouldn’t want another choice?
Except for one giant hurdle.
Natural gas needs to be compressed (CNG) to provide the expected range (250 to 300 miles) for America’s vehicles.
Traditional natural gas compressors are expensive (millions of dollars), unreliable, inefficient, and leak methane. Economically these compressors are typically justified only for very large fleets.
For small to mid-sized fleets, there hasn’t been an affordable CNG alternative.
Simple-Fill makes CNG viable for small and mid-sized fleets.
Simple-Fill, a Columbus-based spinout from The Ohio State University and a Rev1 Ventures portfolio company, is developing a technology to build a CNG compressor that reliably and affordably compresses natural gas to fuel trucks and other fleet vehicles.
Simple-Fill’s technology isn’t just on the drawing board; it’s being tested and proven in a full-scale gas compressor on a 500-acre farm, right here in our own backyard. And while its first market is small and mid-sized fleets, Simple-Fill sees an opportunity for consumer compressors as well.
“We’re out to change the way America fuels its vehicles,” said Rob Underhill, Simple-Fill president and CEO. “The compressor on that farm is proof that we can compress natural gas in a different way and a better way. It’s an incredibly exciting time.”
Simple-Fill makes connections and achieves milestones.
Simple-Fill’s technology was originally conceived by inventors at OSU’s Center for Automotive Research (CAR) and licensed from OSU.
“My mindset has always been that you have to have a market,” Underhill said. “If you don’t have a market, you have a technology; you don’t have a product. A product is something that people will put hard-earned cash down to buy because it solves a problem.”
The company received the first investment from the Technology Concept Fund, LLC, a $1 million fund made possible through the joint investment of The Ohio State University and Ohio Third Frontier and managed by Rev1 Ventures.
That investment funded further development of Simple-Fill’s prototype.
“We are a member of Rev1’s Expert Network services program,” said Underhill. “Through that, we received assistance from a prominent law firm whom provided a freedom to operate opinion (FTO) on our intellectual property position in the marketplace. We’ve also been able to create ongoing relationships with providers of bookkeeping, tax, and payroll services.”
Once the alpha test is complete, Simple-Fill plans six customer pilot compressors to expand testing and to prepare for commercialization.
“Our pilot phase will involve manufacturing a product that we can take into the field for demonstrations and to gain data from customers to improve the product,” Underhill said.
Having that first pilot customer is one of a startup’s most important firsts. Simple-Fill has hit that milestone, too.
“Rev1 has been helping connect us with potential pilot customers,” Underhill said. “We were introduced to a Columbus company, Safelight® AutoGlass, which had the forty-eighth largest fleet in the United States in 2013. They will be our first pilot customer. They and other operators of small to mid-sized fleets and large distributed fleets (like Safelite’s) believe that Simple-Fill’s solution is more affordable and robust than conventional technology.”
Simple-Fill expands strategic industry relationships beyond Ohio.
Earlier this year, Simple-Fill hired the company’s second employee. As vice-president of operations and engineering, Kim Wenninger’s job is to prepare Simple-Fill for commercial production.
“We attracted Kim from Houston and the oil and gas industry,” Underhill said. “She has been a critical hire as we roll out our pilot compressors. Additionally, it doesn’t hurt that she has a well-established network in Houston.”
Underhill and Wenninger traveled to Houston to establish relationships with those energy industry leaders.
“In Houston, people get it quickly,” Underhill said. “We didn’t have to make the business case because these folks are leaders in the energy industry. We could see the light in their eyes. It’s like developing a new product for insurance agencies or retail in Columbus; people understand it right away.”
Entrepreneurship in Columbus is hot.
When it comes to entrepreneurship, Columbus has a secret sauce. We’ve taken to calling it the Backyard Effect. It’s when the unique assets of a region connect and pull together to give a startup company like Simple-Fill a boost toward success.
With more than 50 Fortune 1000 companies headquartered in Ohio, plus numerous large subsidiaries and privately held firms, this state is a terrific place for startups to connect, as Simple-Fill did, to that all important first customer.
To paraphrase Archimedes, “give me a place to stand and a long enough lever, I can move the world.”
For Simple-Fill, the place to stand is Columbus and the lever is the connection and collaboration of its vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem.
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