Rochester’s American Fuel Cell
Plug Power would not be in Rochester at all were it not for O’Connell and the startup he founded with his partner David Wetter, American Fuel Cell. A 2014 graduate of NEXUS-NY, the NYSERDA-funded clean-energy accelerator program, O’Connell launched American Fuel Cell because he saw an opportunity to exceed existing performance standards for the core component of a fuel cell, the membrane electrode assembly (MEA). His goals weren’t limited to technical ones—he sought to produce what would be the only US-made MEA available on the market.
The team that O’Connell built included long-time veterans like himself of what was a small-but-active fuel-cell research and development hub in the Rochester region. Both General Motors and Delphi Technologies operated hydrogen research programs in the area before relocating (the former) or shifting focus (the latter) by 2012. O’Connell made his commitment to rebuilding Rochester as a hydrogen R&D center clear from the outset, saying in 2014, “Our goal is to bring high-tech, high-paying, fuel-cell jobs to the Rochester region.”
Soon after entering the market, American Fuel Cell hit the ceiling of their productive capacity. Their product, a domestically produced, improved MEA, met a genuine market need. Now they had to grow, but that required more resources and capital.
Fast forward three years: American Fuel Cell is acquired by Plug Power, a hard-earned accomplishment for O’Connell and his team that spoke to the quality of the technology they developed. It was also a win for Rochester’s economy because the American Fuel Cell staff continued to work in the Eastman Business Park facility following the deal. Plug Power’s investment, as the recent expansion shows, is already realizing a scale up of R&D efforts at the location. Plus, they expect to hire 80 additional staff.
Plug Power also stood to gain through the deal. The acquisition gave them a footing in on-road applications of hydrogen, since much of their focus had been on stationary systems.
How real technical innovation happens
Over $25 billion dollars were invested into clean energy technology start-ups by venture capital firms between 2006 and 2011—half of that money was lost as businesses failed. So what made American Fuel Cell such a success story?
While there are no doubt many reasons, it is clear that O’Connell’s diligence paid off when it came to validating and improving his MEA technology. That meant seeking out the expertise and resources that would give him the information and recommendations he needed. Often startups lack the resources to take the time to fully evaluate and adjust their technology design. Missing problems early on in the development cycle can lead to an expensive redesign, wasted inventory, and lost customers, all setbacks that can spell out failure for a new company.
O’Connell is the first to point out that [tweet]American Fuel Cell’s ascent would not have been possible without the matrix of technical and business development assistance that was available to him in New York State.[/tweet]
Powering tomorrow’s clean-tech economy
The Golisano Institute of Sustainability (GIS) at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) is proud to be among the resources American Fuel Cell utilized to arrive where they are today. GIS’s dynamic structure, which includes a variety of programs with unique focus areas, allowed RIT to walk with American Fuel Cell each step of the way on its path to joining Plug Power. From graduating from NEXUS-NY to Plug Power’s recent expansion, O’Connell is convinced of the benefits of having a university like RIT available to entrepreneurs like him as a long-term partner.
“I think RIT-GIS is at the forefront of a paradigm shift in how businesses are working with research universities,” he said. “Working with GIS definitely helped us get to where we are today. We were able to move very fast, advance the technology, and to do it at a very low cost.”