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SuperPower plans for amazing future
By LARRY RULISON, Business writer
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First published: Sunday, March 4, 2007

SCHENECTADY hings are starting to heat up at SuperPower Inc.

The Schenectady-based energy technology firm has been in a hiring mode lately, and it announced a new $3 million military contract just last week.

And the company, which is owned by Philips Medical Systems in Andover, Mass., and employs 60 people, is in the process of seeking investment dollars.

That is part of a process that former owner Intermagnetics General Corp. began a year ago to make SuperPower an independent company.

SuperPower's talks with investors are apparently so sensitive right now that neither company officials nor Philips Medical would talk to the Times Union for this story.

But industry experts and analysts say that the high-temperature superconducting technology market that SuperPower is involved in has the potential to revolutionize the equipment used by electric utilities, which spend about $6 billion a year upgrading transmission lines. That amount may reach $100 billion over the next 10 years.

SuperPower has said that industry and the federal government have invested $1 billion in high-temper ature superconductor technology in the U.S. since it was first discovered about 20 years ago.

Superconductivity typically occurs when wires are chilled to temperatures approaching absolute zero, or minus 273 Celsius. The superconducting technology that SuperPower is developing functions at minus 190 Celsius, which is why it is called a high-temperature superconductor.

But any commercial payoff in HTS technology would be years from now. Experts say the high costs of the technology must be reduced and reliability improved. And the power companies must eventually adopt the technology, which they haven't done yet.

That makes investment risky but with a huge upside.

"This is like being around for the discovery of the transistor," said Louis Castellani, president of Metal Oxide Technologies Inc., an HTS wire developer based in Houston. "This is not for the timid."

MetOx, as it is known, is one of a handful of companies around the globe that compete in this field, along with SuperPower and American Superconductor Corp., a public company based in Westborough, Mass.

American Superconductor, which went public in 1991, has 237 employees and a stock market capitalization of $315 million. It has never turned a profit and lost $30 million during its fiscal year that ended March 31 of last year.

Rick Sheehy, a spokesman for American Superconductor, said the company would not comment for this article.

Superconducting materials carry electricity without resistance, which is why utilities and other energy companies are so interested in the technology. Superconductivity was first discovered by a Dutch scientist in 1911, and in the late 1980s, scientists from IBM discovered high-temperature superconductors that are now being developed by SuperPower and others.

The electric utility industry is particularly interested in HTS technology because scientists believe HTS wire can be a viable alternative to traditional copper wires used in electrical transmission.

Unlike copper wires, HTS wires have no resistance to electricity, so they are more efficient and can provide more reliability to the electrical grid. SuperPower is developing a second-generation HTS wire that it says has superior performance to other HTS wires.

The resistance in traditional copper wires causes a loss of 7 percent to 10 percent of the electricity flowing through them.

Superconductors are also used in medical imaging devices such as magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, machines.

Intermagnetics, which Philips Medical acquired for $1.3 billion in November, made large magnets used in MRI machines that also have superconducting properties.

But the decision was made about a year ago that SuperPower would be better off on its own, and the investment bank Stephens Inc. of Little Rock, Ark., was hired to seek out a buyer.

Philips won't say whether Stephens is still working on the deal, or whether another firm has been hired.

Philips also won't address statements that SuperPower President Philip Pellegrino has made that the company is seeking $30 million in financing and that a deal could be secured by the spring

"These decisions have not been made yet," said Philips Medical spokesman Ian Race. "And we're looking to find out why information has been communicated."

Pellegrino did not return a call seeking comment, and SuperPower spokeswoman Trudy Lehner said he and other company officials would not comment for this story.

Carl Rosner, the founder of Intermagnetics who is now CEO of a Schenectady medical imaging company called CardioMag Imaging Inc., says SuperPower is developing an important product that could dramatically improve energy efficiency.

"I think the technology obviously has an important future," he said. "And the potential is huge if there is enough investment dollars over the next few years."

Although Rosner didn't know any specifics about what types of funding are available to SuperPower, he pointed to the fact that the stock of American Superconductor, SuperPower's main competitor, has been attracting a lot of interest lately.

In fact, shares of American Superconductor were trading at a 52-week high of more than $14 late last week, and they have risen more than 50 percent since late January.

Pradeep Haldar, one of the scientists at Intermagnetics who helped to create SuperPower and is now head of the University at Albany's Energy and Environmental Technology Applications Center, says the adoption of HTS technology by utility customers might be five to 10 years away, depending on the country's energy needs.

"This is a technology that is very promising," Haldar said, "but there's still a substantial amount of risk involved with it."

Haldar says the risk is so great and the financial payoff so far down the road that a likely investor would be a large company with deep pockets that would have a direct stake in the technology taking off.

SuperPower is currently involved with a number of large corporate partners in a $27 million HTS wire demonstration project taking place in Albany between two National Grid electric substations. The partners include National Grid and Sumitomo Electrical Industries Ltd. of Japan.

In December, SuperPower shipped more than six miles of second-generation HTS wire to Sumitomo to use in the manufacture of a second-generation HTS power cable to be installed between the two substations later this year.

Although about $20 million of the SuperPower project is being funded by the state and federal governments, the project's partners are splitting the rest of the cost with SuperPower.

National Grid spokesman Patrick Stella said the British-based utility would not be interested in investing in SuperPower, only serving as a host to the project.

"Primarily, we're in the (energy) transmission and distribution business," Stella said. "Our relationship with SuperPower has really only been on that one particular project. We're providing the lab, if you will, for them to test that technology."

Yuichiro Horiba, a spokesman for Sumitomo, was asked by the Times Union if Sumitomo wants to acquire SuperPower.

"At this point in time, there is no fact (to the idea) that Sumitomo Electric Industries Ltd. (has) made the decision to acquire SuperPower Inc.," he said in an e-mail response.

In addition to SuperPower's quest for an investor and independence, the company has been growing, and getting other good news.

In January, SuperPower promoted Venkat Selvamanickam to vice president and chief technology officer, and in February, it announced that John Herrin, a former executive with Saint-Gobain Abrasives, had been hired as its first vice president of manufacturing.

The company is also seeking to hire a marketing manager and marketing assistant, new jobs that show the company is moving out of strictly a research and development phase into a commercialization phase.

And on Feb. 27, SuperPower announced a new $3 million contract with the U.S. Department of Defense Office of Naval Research to work on the second phase of a program to develop a HTS generator based on its HTS wire.

All this means good things for the Capital Region, especially the city of Schenectady, where SuperPower is headquartered.

SuperPower is working with Schenectady County Community College and Union College in the city on a $5 million workforce development partnership that has already resulted in two SuperPower employees joining the facility at the SCCC.

"Any growth that SuperPower experiences will be beneficial to Schenectady County Community College and our students, as we will be training students to enter their company as skilled professionals," SCCC spokeswoman Heather Meaney said. "Their growth can only benefit this partnership, our work-force development initiatives and the local economy."

Larry Rulison can be reached at 454-5504 or by e-mail at lrulison@timesunion.com.

All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2007, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.