In 2001, a professor of materials science and engineering at MIT, Yet-Ming Chiang, announced some promising results concerning new battery materials. But those materials might still be in the lab today were it not for Ric Fulop, then an enterprising 26-year-old from Venezuela. Today, the materials are being used to make high-performance batteries that General Motors is testing for use in its new electric car, the Volt.
Fulop founded his first company–which imported computer hardware and software and sold it to Venezuelan retailers–at the age of 16. He has since founded five more companies, including one, Into Networks, whose software is used in the Windows Vista operating system. But it is at A123 Systems, the company he founded with Chiang in 2001, that Fulop has had his greatest success. Now the company’s vice president of business development, he has helped A123 raise over $250 million, including investments from Sequoia Capital, GE, and OnPoint, the venture capital initiative of the U.S. Army. A123’s batteries can already be found in power tools, airplanes, and hybrid buses.
Fulop dropped out of college to found one of his companies, only to return for an MBA after starting A123. But despite a lack of academic training in materials science, he is quick to grasp technical details. He spent months scouring scientific journals, attending conferences, and picking the brains of university technology licensing officers before his search led him to Yet-Ming Chiang. And thanks to this preparation, it took just one meeting to convince the MIT professor that Fulop’s idea for a battery company was sound.
Commercializing battery technology, especially for new cars, is a capital-intensive and risky business. To help jump-start the company, Fulop helped negotiate a deal with Black and Decker to supply batteries for the power-tool market. Not only did the agreement give A123 an early and much-needed source of revenue from an industrial customer, but it was an ideal way to start testing its production technology for the much larger automotive market. In 2006, partly on the strength of the company’s success in reliably producing millions of battery cells a year for power tools, Fulop and his partners persuaded GM to give A123 a chance. The automaker is testing two different battery technologies for its Volt, with a decision expected by the end of the year. If GM does select A123’s technology, Fulop will have played a key role in making possible the United States’ first mass-produced electric car. –Kevin Bullis