Fremont startup lands deal with Nissan

August 26, 2009 7:08:31 PM PDT
In Fremont on Wednesday night, workers at a startup celebrated a new deal with Nissan. Their company is just a short distance from the New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc., or NUMMI, plant owned by Toyota. The small startup hopes to play a big role in the car business.

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In a time and a place where manufacturing feels as if it's disappearing, here is a reason for hope.

"It's basically a bridge to something very large," said Sanjov Malhotra, Ph.D., from Oorja.

Twenty years ago, Malhotra came to this country for a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. Now, his company, Oorja, designs and builds fuel cells -- which cleanly convert alcohol into electricity.

This week, it announced a big deal, an order for 60 units from Nissan, which will use the fuel cells to power forklifts at a factory in Tennessee, but fuel cells have potential beyond that.

"The hope is automotive, and who better than somebody like Nissan?" said Malhotra.

Methanol fuel cells are not new as a technology, but they continue to evolve. Malhotra built the first machine in his garage in 2005. Since then, they have become smaller and more efficient.

"And it can keep the forklift running. It's like a hybrid system," said Malhotra.

Oorja's success makes a promising contrast to the drama still unfolding at NUMMI, just a few miles away. More than 4,000 workers have been lobbying Toyota to keep the plant open and to save their jobs.

"If the plant closes, that means it would be taking away from my family also," said a NUMMI worker.

That stress at NUMMI does not escape the 35 people working at Oorja, which has been adding jobs. Robert Anzelc might understand the contrast best of all, since he used to work in that auto plant when it belonged to General Motors. Then, he changed his life by getting a masters in computer science.

"When the plant transitioned from General Motors to NUMMI, it was like a shake up. I thought I had a secure job. When I saw the plant close down for three years, I realized how quickly I could be out of work and I could be an unemployed truck driver," said Robert Anzelc, a software engineer.

Not that Oorja could absorb 4,700 workers, but in a struggling economy, with so many questions the mere prospect of possibility looks good by comparison.

"Well, this is defiantly a small company, but that is where everyone starts," said Malhotra.

LINK: Oorja Protonics

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