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Business Q&A: Perpetua looks to reduce energy waste

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Jon Hofmeister, the president of Perpetua Power Source Technology, was named entrepreneur of the year during the Celebrate Corvallis event held in January and sponsored by the Corvallis-Benton Chamber Coalition. Not bad for a company that's kept a relatively low profile to date.

In the wake of the chamber award, Hofmeister agreed to a quick e-mail interview. Here's the complete interview:

Gazette-Times: Share a little background about Perpetua: How the business got started, how it developed, how you got involved in the company.

Jon Hofmeister: Perpetua was founded in 2005. I was fortunate enough to convince a couple of Hewlett-Packard technology veterans shortly after founding to come on board to help advance some renewable energy technology we licensed from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory through Battelle Memorial Institute. Our vision was, and still is, to design renewable energy solutions that can extend the life of low-power electronics n such as wireless sensors and transmitters.

We've been operating primarily in stealth mode to date. Other than reaching out to technical partners in the area and our very supportive investors, we haven't really been spreading the story. As we transition the business through the technology development and growth stages, we are excited to shift gears a bit. The local technical community has been a huge asset thus far and we feel very lucky to be part of the Oregon community in general. Community support is going to be very important for us as we grow.

G-T: At its core, Perpetua - which manufactures renewable energy solutions for wireless sensors - would seem to meet the definition of being a "green" business. How has that focus been reflected in the company's business practices? What have been the challenges that you've faced in that area?

Hofmeister: Yes, we see ourselves as a green technology business. At a minimum, we see our products helping keep batteries out of landfills. Currently, over a billion batteries end up in U.S. landfills every year. While we can't make a big dent in this massive number yet, our renewable sources are designed to last and are used to power wireless sensor systems that are, by their very nature, designed to provide information to better manage energy and other scarce resources.

In terms of our internal operations, we embrace basics such as recycling paper, plastic, printer cartridges, batteries, and paperless billing. On a larger scale, we also recently went through a significant lighting change in the production facility - converting over to a more energy efficient lighting system. The energy savings alone were worth it, but the additional upside is that we have much, much better lighting in the manufacturing area.

We haven't faced any challenges yet in terms of our company focus or business practice. I suppose it would be nice if we qualified for some of the energy supplements that have been set up for more traditional solar, biodiesel, and other larger renewable companies here in Oregon.

G-T: What advice would you give to other smallish businesses trying to find ways to work sustainability into their business practices?

Hofmeister: I do not consider myself an expert, but I think there are several common areas that I think all small businesses, particularly those involved in product-based companies (vs. services, software) can build on. To date, we've focused on recycling and energy usage, but we're also interested in looking at recycled and alternative materials in our products and shipping containers. Our vendors, employees and partners will all be playing key roles in our sustainability plan.

I'd recommend searching the Internet for ideas, success stories, and to connect with the growing number of green professionals - sites such as www.greenbiz.com come to mind.

G-T: What are the advantages and disadvantages of running a business like Perpetua from Corvallis?

Hofmeister: There is a great depth of HP technical talent in the area, which has been a significant benefit to date. As we grow, I anticipate our university ties also being a key to our success. We have already teamed up with OSU, U of O, and PSU on several research projects and look forward to deepening our relationships as time goes on.

We haven't struggled with any disadvantages yet. I suspect as our customer interactions grow, we may see some issues with being located a ways away from a larger airport. But, having said that, the benefits have far outweighed the costs, and "so far, so good" on our abilities to travel to/from PDX.

G-T: In a number of cases when entrepreneurs start companies, there comes a point where the founder needs to shift his or her role away from more of an entreprenurial mindset and focus more on management skills to guide the company's growth. Is Perpetua at a point yet where you need to change your thinking about how to guide the company? How are you working to prepare the company for that transition from entreprenurial startup to ongoing concern? What do you gain in that transition? What do you run the risk of losing?

Hofmeister: Indeed, the focus has been changing recently from managing technology to focused growth. It's a challenging transition and one that other companies in our industry have struggled with in the past. It's important to manage growth for all our stakeholders n customers, employees, investors, the community, vendors, etc. While goals don't always perfectly mesh, I find it very rewarding to find the balancing points between different stakeholders. If done well, our highly collaborative approach will bring unique opportunities for us to build on and we can continue to perform better than our competitors.

Entrepreneurship and management are not disparate concepts in my mind. The keys to both are engaging quality people who are motivated, paying close attention to what people want, and doing everything personally possible to make others successful. It's certainly no cakewalk at times, but I am lucky to be working in an area I truly believe in and with a group of very talented people. Our team deserves huge credit during this transition. Everyone is already working at full-steam, and now we're bringing on more work with new business opportunities n without the benefit of a lot of new resources yet. It's the leadership team's role to narrowly select from the wide range of company opportunities and provide as much support as possible as we turn the corner from development to profitability.

G-T: Did you have fun at Celebrate Corvallis? You gave a nice speech - was there a point or two you forgot to make in the speech that you'd like to add now?

Hofmeister: Yes, I had a great time, and I really appreciate the compliment regarding the speech. I would like to share a big "thank you" to the Business Enterprise Center for the nomination and for all their support of Perpetua. I'd also like to reiterate how lucky I am to be working with the talented team at Perpetua. I feel very fortunate to be surrounded by such great people.

Coming Friday

For much more information about businesses that are working to integrate sustainability into their business models, check out the April edition of Mid-Valley InBusiness, which will appear in the April 3 edition of the Gazette-Times.

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