A Mighty Wind: Q&A with Jen Baird

Local start-up Accio Energy isn't just unique because of what it has (innovative alternative energy technologies) but what it doesn't (a Y chromosome). The Ann Arbor-based energy firm hit the female executive trifecta with co-founder Dawn White, board chair Mary Campbell (of EDF Ventures), and Jennifer Baird as its CEO.

Enthusiastic, dynamic, and, most of all, convincingly on message when it comes to selling Accio Energy's new technology, Baird promises that her company will redefine wind energy. To hear a journalist describe it is awkward and unconvincing, a complicated system of radiator-like panels, water mists, and static electricity working to harness the wind's energy without any moving parts. But to hear Baird's pitch is to believe that Accio Energy is on the path toward reinventing the industry. Don't be surprised if you feel compelled to reach for your checkbook in an effort to invest.

"Accio Energy is engineered lighting," Baird says. "We're taking the process that happens in a thunderstorm and controlling that. It's essentially the same thing. You have water, wind, charges, and electric fields. We're doing the same kind of physics as a thunderstorm but on an engineered scale."

When you meet Baird, it quickly becomes obvious this isn't her first ride on the seed capital merry-go-round. She raised $30 million for Accuri Cytometers, growing the Ann Arbor bio-tech firm from concept to a company 80 people strong in five short years. Its name is often mentioned as a prime acquisition target. Baird stepped down as CEO earlier this year and took the top spot at Accio Energy (pronounced Ack-E-O). Today her company employs eight people and is a semi-finalist in the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition.
"I love making something out of nothing," Baird says. "I'm a rebel at heart, so I love doing things that people say can't be done. The life of an entrepreneurial CEO is you're told you can't do this or that over and over again. You need to be a little bit of a rebel to survive that process and to see things that are possible that aren't obvious to everybody else. It's part of the entrepreneurial process."

It's a world Baird knows all-too well. Majoring in organizational psychology at the University of Michigan, Baird thought her studies would help her in the business world. A Northwestern MBA and a management consulting business for a few dozen companies soon followed. Both gave her just enough experience to know who goes where at a start-up and how to maximize their potential.

"What you want to do is find the place where these individuals can flourish together as a team in a special way," Baird says. "That's what makes a successful company. That's what I do. How do you find the right market, technology and team, and how do you bring all these pieces together to build something out of nothing that makes a difference in the world? That's what's so fun, and Ann Arbor has a great culture for that."

Baird sat down with Concentrate's Jon Zemke last week to talk start-ups, alternative energy and horses over a couple of latte's at Zingerman's Coffee Company near Accio Energy's offices on the south side of Ann Arbor.

Trying to reinvent the wheel is generally seen as a negative thing, but Accio Energy is attempting to reinvent the wind turbine with its aerovolatic system. What makes you so sure this paradigm shift will be successful?

Turbines today create flicker and sound, so putting those close to people isn't good. We're transformative because we're silent and stationary. Those things mean we can be close to population centers and cut out a whole swath of costs we don't need. We can be cost competitive with a lot of conventional fuels.

Are you marketing this for residential or commercial?

Commercial to utility scale. That's where you have the greatest impact. There isn't a sector of wind power we couldn't have a product in. It's a question of where do you start and build out from there.
The politics of where to build wind turbines is contentious. Any ideas on how to get better buy-in from local communities?

A better product. Accio Energy's answer is give them an alternative that is more palatable.

Michigan has more than a few companies developing wind turbine technologies but turbines aren't manufactured here. Any thoughts on what's going on and how it should change?

Wind turbine manufacturing often goes to places close to where they will be installed. Wind turbine blades today are longer than football fields. I guarantee you our technology won't be bigger than a shipping container. You can build Accio Energy's panels here and ship them around the world. Not so much with wind turbine blades. Wind turbines are going to get better just like any other technology. But we have the opportunity to leap frog.

Accio Energy's technology does represent that jump from, say, horses to cars. However, people are conditioned to think wind energy equals moving parts. How do you convince a skeptical public this is viable?

Ultimately, you sell this to people based on the advantages to them. You need to have some installations so people can see it and then they can start to imagine it. Most people aren't able to think beyond the next curve.

What is Accio Energy getting out of the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition beyond the prize money?

The organizers have gotten some very high-profile investors taking part in the judging process. Exposure to them from a slightly different angle is very helpful.

What do you think Michigan will get out of it?

We'll get a lot more exposure to a much broader base of investors who are not familiar with Michigan. When I first raised money from Boston-based VCs, one of those investors said, 'You should have sold me more on how easy it is to get to Michigan.' People need to know we're easy to get to. It makes a difference when we're trying to access capital.

You're a big Rick Snyder fan. Are the expectations of him creating a dynamic entrepreneurial environment too high?

I have no doubt they're too high. What excites me about Rick is I have seen him build something out of nothing repeatedly in many different contexts. We need a lot of building something out of nothing here. It's going to take him longer and be harder than anybody wants, including Rick. What we really want is it all to be done yesterday. Short of that is a failure.

Sort of like Dave Bing with Detroit or Barack Obama with the presidency?

Exactly. I feel for those leaders because we have done a good job of electing people who have good fundamental capabilities, but it is not easy.

You have raised millions of dollars in venture capital both before and after the financial crisis. What's the difference between raising money then and now?

Folks are more cautious now. Fundamentally, successful fundraising has to do with building a unique and fundable asset. We were able to raise money after the financial crisis because we have a viable asset and that was obvious to investors.

The state legislature just passed new incentives for angel investing that will encourage more investments and create more jobs. Do you believe the hype?

It does seem to make a difference in their thinking. The effectiveness of this program will be determined in the implementation. There are processes that could be made excruciatingly painful or quite simple. Let's hope that straightforward and simple rule. Little companies that need capital don't have the infrastructure to work their way through long, bureaucratic processes.

Can serial entrepreneurship be taught to people already working for someone else or is it more about cultivating young people naturally inclined to start and sell businesses?

I have been completely impressed with the [Ann Arbor SPARK's] Shifting Gears program's ability to produce people who can figure out entrepreneurial DNA. The process of engaging is a personal transformation and it's accomplished person by person.

Executive talent is a key ingredient in creating a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem. What is one thing southeast Michigan does correctly to retain and grow that talent base?

The most important thing to growing that talent base is to foster the creation and growth of new companies. Executives are predictable creatures. They go after great business opportunities.

You don't have to lead that horse to water.

But you have to make sure there is enough water. Most entrepreneurial ventures don't last 30 years. People make a career off multiple companies. Look at Jeff Williams at Accuri Cytometers.  That's his third or fourth venture. Roger Newton, one of our highest profile entrepreneurs, has done multiple ventures.

Why is transitioning executive talent from managing corporate boardrooms to fledgling start-ups difficult?

The skill sets are different at different scales of companies. You go from where everybody in the room knows everything that is going on to this function is doing this and that function is doing that. Often corporate people come from having the infrastructure to handle that to having to be hands on -- and that's pretty tricky.

Much of the state's focus is on start-ups, but the real money is in second-stage businesses. Is too much attention paid to the start of the business curve?

There's not a lot the state can do to help second-stage businesses. Frankly, second-stage businesses can afford to hire professional help.

A lot of people say acquisitions of local start-ups are positive signs of an economy's improving health. Critics argue it's hard to agree when the company and its jobs go elsewhere. Is there a balance to be struck between these two points of view?

Companies are not static. They are growing, changing and morphing. On the individual case it can look bad, but we can't get hung up on that. We need to foster as much entrepreneurial growth as possible. Growth means living and dying, moving and changing all the time.

If conventional wisdom is correct and every problem is really an opportunity in disguise, what is the opportunity of U-M spin-off Ambiq Micro moving to Austin, Texas?

Everybody won't go. It will be the same situation as HandyLab, where some people will recycle into the infrastructure here.

You are a fan of horseback riding. How would you design a Pure Michigan ad that makes a horseback-riding haven like Louisville nervous?

(laughs) Michigan has more shoreline than any other state except Alaska and we have more spectacular scenery. Connect the horses to the natural environment that is Michigan.

Jon Zemke is the News Editor for Concentrate and the Managing Editor for SEMichiganStartup.com. His last feature was Founder Q&A: Bill Wagner and Dianne Marsh

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All photos by Doug Coombe


Jen Baird at Accio Energy

Jen being interviewed at Zingerman's Coffee Bar

A Tesla Coil at Accio Energy

Jen with a model of a wind generator

Jen at Zingerman's Coffee Bar

Jen Baird in the Accio Energy machine shop