Bob Panora | Crain's

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Bob Panora

Background:  

Tecogen manufactures products that can generate heat and useful thermal energy at the same time (a process called cogeneration), using natural gas and an engine. Their offerings include a cogeneration module, which provides electricity and heat, and chillers that produce air conditioning and hot water. 

The Mistake:

California tightened emissions standards for stationary engines several years ago, and testing enforcement showed no one was in compliance with the new, stricter standard. This could have killed the cogeneration industry in the state, but the California Energy Commission was incredibly interested in cogeneration as a means of cutting carbon emissions and improving energy efficiency. So we partnered with them and SoCalGas. They were all interested in funding a research initiative to find an emissions solution.

Our Ultera emissions control technology was born out of that research program and allows stationary natural gas engines to more than meet the strict standard, cutting pollutants to near zero—on par with ultra-clean fuel cell technology. [We believed] Ultera might provide the solution to automotive emissions control issues, too.

But in talking to the folks that were in the auto industry, they didn't want to hear about it. They felt that they had a very good system that needed no further advice from me or my technology. What they had worked very very well, but I knew enough about engines and the technology to say, "Why don't they have a problem? I had a problem."

They really were not at a point to listen. You had people who didn't perceive that they had a problem. The industry was very comfortable with what it had accomplished and was not interested. I could have beat on that door forever and I wouldn't have made any inroads into that industry.

If there's no clear current market, then you need to step back and wait for the right time.

The Lesson:

What I learned from all that was that you really have to have very good timing, or else you're not going to succeed. If there hasn't been some situation that highlights the problem, you're going to have a very, very difficult time in a big industry, like the automotive industry, getting anyone to listen to you.

Timing is everything. I think the mistake we made was I think we should've kept it closer to the vest and maybe timed our meeting better. If there's no clear current market, then you need to step back and wait for the right time. That's when you have to show your cards.

Follow Tecogen on Twitter at @Tecogen_Inc.

Photo courtesy of Bob Panora.