Six months after Mark Frohnmayer and his co-founders sold their video game developing company, GarageGames, to IAC for $50 million in 2007, Frohnmayer launched a new business: an electric-car manufacturer called Arcimoto.
That may not sound like the most obvious career shift, but, given Frohnmayer's location, it might be a smart one. Based in Eugene, Oregon, Arcimoto is part of a growing concentration of 27 electric-car and component companies along the 110-mile-long corridor from Portland to Eugene.
Will Arcimoto's Pulse LT, a tear-shaped three-wheeler, appeal to car buyers? Frohnmayer figures there is no better place to find out than in Portland itself. "Portland has had some of the earliest, most enthusiastic leadership around electric vehicles," says Chelsea Sexton, an alternative-fuel expert. "And the industry tends to align with where the market is."
Most of these companies are start-ups, including the charging-station manufacturer Shorepower Technologies, which has sold nearly 50 stations in Portland's metropolitan area to the likes of Intel and Nike, and the motor and component manufacturer Synkromotive, which makes parts for Arcimoto. Others are more established businesses, like the 50-year-old AmFor Electronics, which began selling its wiring systems to the EV market two years ago. Meanwhile, Nissan, Navistar, Ford, and Mitsubishi have chosen Portland to test-market their electric vehicles.
There are good reasons an electric-car industry is taking hold in and around Portland. First, there is plenty of local demand. The city had the most hybrid vehicles per capita in the country in 2008 and 2009, according to automotive researcher R. L. Polk & Co. American City Business Journals ranks Portland the greenest city in the country, and its compact 145 square miles make Portland easy to navigate in an electric vehicle with limited range.
What's more, Intel and other local tech companies, together with a once-booming motor-coach industry, provide a wealth of high-tech and manufacturing talent. Then there is the impending rollout of 1,100 charging stations, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, as well as statewide tax incentives for electric-vehicle purchases.
Arcimoto intends to start selling its Pulse later this year. With its slender shape, the diminutive Pulse is the antithesis of a hulking SUV, and a natural, Frohnmayer hopes, for progressive Oregon urbanites. Because it has only three wheels, the Pulse is classified as a motorcycle, but it has regular car seats and a carlike, instrument-rich dashboard. Frohnmayer is betting the Pulse will appeal to commuters, because it can travel at highway speeds and has a range of up to 160 miles. A sweetener is the Pulse's expected price tag of $17,500, less than half the price of a Chevy Volt.
In Portland proper, Michael Czysz's 12-employee company, MotoCzysz, is busy making an integrated electric drive system called the Digital Drive. Czysz started his company five years ago as a manufacturer of high-performance motorcycles, but he turned to building electric drive systems two years ago, first for motorcycles and now for cars. MotoCzysz's drive system, which will be available by the second quarter of this year, is a fully integrated system that includes the motor, inverter, cooling system, oil pump, and virtually all other essential components.
The Digital Drive has received rave reviews from the industry press, and Czysz says he is in talks about selling it to companies in the U.S., Japan, and India. "I think Portland is the perfect environment for us," he says. "It's competitive on the manufacturing side. It's competitive on the technology side, and it's a leader on the environmental side."