Rita Hansen aims to scale natural gas vehicle innovation.
In the fall of 1998, Rita Hansen completed Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit, a 128-mile, blister-inducing, thigh-burning trek through some of the Himalayas’ highest and best-known peaks. For most people, the monthlong journey, complete with day climbs to the tops of peaks and passes, including 17,768-foot Thorung La, is the furthest thing — literally and figuratively — from a vacation. But for Rita Hansen, 57, a backpack and climbing harness beats a lounge chair and a Mai Tai anytime.
“The key to a successful climb is knowing your strengths and weaknesses,” says Hansen, the CEO of Onboard Dynamics, a startup that is working on a natural gas refueling method for vehicles; the system will allow drivers to fill up from their household or business natural gas lines.
After graduating from the University of Washington with a degree in industrial engineering, Hansen worked first for Tektronix, followed by a stint at Oregon Steel Mills (now Evraz North America), where she met her husband, Milo Long. The couple eventually cashed in their stock options and set out for the nomadic life, traveling, sailing and climbing in 26 countries before resettling in Central Oregon in 2012.Fit and with a ready smile, Hansen is cut from the Bend entrepreneurial cloth: driven, adventurous and chock-full of climbing metaphors to describe her business strategy. “If you look at the whole mountain, it’s overwhelming,” says Hansen, referring to the task of bringing the startup’s technology to market. “You have to break it down into smaller parts. Right now we are just trying to get to base camp.”
In between globetrotting escapades, Hansen took on various management and consulting jobs — directing the operations and service department at Agilyx, an alternative energy company, as well as the new plant rollout at Apex Construction Systems. She also worked for short periods at BLT Technologies, BT Office Products International and Roomster, an online housing site.
Onboard, she says, represents a departure from her previous managerial experience. “Getting in at the ground floor and pulling together a strong team right from the get-go has been one of the most fun experiences I’ve had in business,” says Hansen, who spoke with Oregon Business from her startup-spare Bend office.
As much as she loves strategy, Hansen is also passionate about Onboard’s innovation. “This is game-changing technology,” she says.
Natural gas is abundant, cheap and burns about 30% cleaner than regular gasoline. But there are several hurdles to mainstreaming natural gas vehicles; e.g., the latter require gas that has been compressed from lower pipeline pressures to higher engine pressures. Problem is, there only about 500 public fueling stations in the country with that capacity; two in Oregon. So although major auto manufacturers like Ford, Chrysler and Honda are making cars that run on natural gas, there aren’t a whole lot of places to fill them up.
“It’s a ‘chicken or the egg’ scenario,” says Hansen. “Automobile companies want the infrastructure first, while natural gas companies want the natural gas vehicles first.”
Onboard aims to close the infrastructure gap by fitting a natural gas compression head directly to a car’s engine. In that way, the vehicle itself becomes the compressor, allowing homeowners and businesses to “self-fuel” virtually anywhere there is a natural gas line.
It’s an elegant solution. Credit for the idea goes to Onboard co-founder Chris Hagen, an assistant professor of engineering at Oregon State University’s Cascades Energy Systems Lab. Hagen hooked up with Hansen a couple of years ago through EDCO (Economic Development for Central Oregon), where Hansen is one of several volunteer experts. She is also a board member of the Cascade Angels fund and Looking Forward, a Bend nonprofit promoting economic development. “My favorite thing is getting plugged into a community,” she says.
As a climber, Hansen is imbued with a keen eco-sensibility. As a veteran of several clean-tech companies, she was more than intrigued by Hagen’s compression device. Onboard launched in 2013, with energy industry entrepreneur Jeff Witwer as a third co-founder and vice president of engineering.
Like most clean-energy startups, Onboard faces an uphill battle competing with an entrenched and well-financed oil and gasoline industry. The technology is going to work, Hansen says. “The challenge is getting it to the point of being economically viable.”
Onboard is “very innovative,” agrees Chris Galati, NW Natural’s CNG (compressed natural gas) program manager, who keeps an eye on promising natural gas developments. “The question is: Can they build a big enough market?”
The federal government has confidence. In 2014 the Onboard team secured a $3.6 million commercialization grant from the U.S. DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (APRA-E) — the second largest grant of its kind ever awarded to an Oregon company. Oregon BEST and ONAMI contributed $720,000 in gap funding.
NGVs in the U.S.
Executing a successful project, Hansen observes, requires “the aptitude to know who should lead a specific pitch.” So as Hagen continues to work on the technology development side, Hansen is guiding Onboard toward a product road map and marketing plan centered around licensing the technology and targeting large companies with automobile fleets. Theirs is a disciplined approach. Under the terms of the APRA-E contract, the Onboard team agreed to an 18-month work plan with quarterly milestones — culminating in spring 2016 with the integration of the technology into a Ford F-250.
Those targets “really help us keep focused on the small parts that will get us to the bigger picture,” Hansen says.
That kind of compartmentalization is par for the course, whether Hansen is planning one of her regular climbs up Smith Rock — just 15 miles from her house in Eagle Crest Resort — or setting a path to clean-energy nirvana.
Not that she doesn’t allow for serendipity. “In business or climbing, no matter how much planning you do, you will have to wing something,” Hansen says. “You just try to prepare yourself as best you can.”
Bringing the station to you
NW Natural knows about the vagaries of the natural gas market. Until 2001 the utility had for many years offered businesses with natural gas fleets the opportunity to fuel up using compression equipment on NW Natural lots. Post 9/11, “we stopped granting access,” says Chris Galati, NW Natural’s compressed natural gas (CNG)program manager. “It would have required an additional layer of security.”
Now a new program is reviving the utility’s CNG services. Last year the Oregon Public Utility Commission granted NW Natural approval to install and maintain gas compression equipment on the premises of businesses that want to fuel vehicles with natural gas. Three projects are in the feasibility stage, Galati says.
Will the service accelerate business interest in CNG as a vehicle fuel? “The customers that look at switching to CNG are very concerned about economics and the environment,” Galati says. “But there has to be an economic benefit to them for the conversion.” When the program — known by the less than evocative title “Schedule H” — was approved, Galati says, oil prices were $100 a barrel. “I was a rock star. Then diesel prices went down to 40 bucks a barrel. We are good at keeping conventional gasoline prices low in this country.”