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Does Lobbying Always Pay?

Posted by Scott Kirsner  August 6, 2009 10:36 AM

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a123battery.jpg
This week's major news on the federal stimulus front is $2.4 billion worth of grants for new technology related to electric cars, hybrids, and the batteries to run them. Some of the money will go to companies in Quincy, MA; Barre, VT; and Waterbury, CT.

But the big local winner was A123 Systems of Watertown, the MIT spin-out -- and IPO contender -- that received $249 million in stimulus funds. It will use the money to build factories in Michigan to make lithium-ion car batteries.

Boston-Power, a Westborough company that also makes next-gen lithium-ion batteries, was hoping for a $100 million chunk of change to build a factory in Massachusetts, but came up empty.

One Innovation Economy reader pointed me to some interesting data about the two battery companies' lobbying activity.

Here's a chart showing A123's lobbying spending over the past three years, courtesy of OpenSecrets.org. Across this timeframe, the company lobbied the Dept. of Transportation, Dept. of Energy, and members of the House and Senate.

a123.png

And here's a chart showing Boston-Power's lobbying spend over 2008 and 2009 so far, also from OpenSecrets.org. According to the site, Boston-Power lobbied members of the House and Senate, along with the Department of Defense (more on that later.)

bpower.png

Now, I don't think this spending disparity necessarily explains why A123 got a grant and Boston-Power didn't. A123 has been working on car batteries longer than Boston-Power, and they already have deals in place with various automakers. Boston-Power's main focus thus far has been making laptop batteries. And perhaps the DC sugar daddies also liked the idea of funding a factory in Michigan, rather than the one in Massachusetts.

But I'm interested in your take... so post a comment below.

Here's President Obama announcing the grants yesterday:

Boston-Power apparently still could win future federal funding. It is in the running for a $100 million grant from the Department of Defense, to be announced later this year.

(Some bonus material: here's a column I wrote in May about local cleantech companies hiring lobbyists.)

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11 comments so far...
  1. Wonder if Boston Power will indeed leave the US, as their CEO mentioned at XSITE earlier this year, to a near-audible gasp from the audience.

    A123's decision to do its manufacturing in Michigan, along with its ties to the auto-industry, seem like they certainly played a key role in this funding. Great company that wants to kickstart the clean car revolution in Detroit? Stimulus no-brainer.

    Posted by AGS August 6, 09 01:46 PM
  1. are you kidding me? everything about Obama and his Chicago thugs is based on money. this country has never been as corrupt as it is today. funny how Obama hates US industry, UNLESS they're shelling out to him and his croonies. Obama is no different than any crime boss. but i have more respect for the criminals...e.g., at least the mafia is honest about being dishonest.

    Posted by jake August 6, 09 03:48 PM
  1. It does seem like the discrepancy is fully explained by the fact that A123 is making car batteries, and thus operating in the area where billions have been designated for green innovation. Their large lobbying expenses in 2007-2008 were after all, aimed at the Republican regime that is now out of office, and may have been of limited use other than increasing their visibility. Laptop batteries, while a big concern for consumers, have little impact on the environment, and I would be quite irked if the government were subsidizing iPods or similar doo-dads.

    Posted by mike August 6, 09 04:13 PM
  1. Opinion Scott, this is one case where the federal government may have actually made a smart decision. A123 batteries are high power, safe batteries suitable for use in hybrid electric vehicles and electric vehicles. They have the potential to transform the auto industry, and have been spec'd into 2010 model cars. Boston Power makes longer lasting batteries for laptops (able to take more recharges, not lasting longer per charge). They call these "green" batteries because people theoretically won't replace their batteries as frequently. However, this is a somewhat modest value proposition, since most people's laptops will obsolete before their batteries die. I.e. it is a bit of a stretch and therefore only offered as an option for Greenies. It's cute, but not critical, and certainly not transformative.

    Posted by Mr Smkr August 6, 09 09:46 PM
  1. is the proposed plant in Michigan union.......thought so!

    Posted by verblax August 6, 09 10:16 PM
  1. A123 is just another faceless, government- connected, global-corporate-wannabe, who made the coice to put their factory where they knew it would do them the most political good. They will shortly move thier operations to
    South Korea. Now that we gave them the money to do that. Hooray for congessional stupidity.
    Boston Power's mistake was thinking that innovation, would be valued by the government. It's not like the president ever mentioned innovation as a valuable thing.

    Posted by rex August 6, 09 10:41 PM
  1. Given that since 2000, the number of registered lobbyists in Washington has more than doubled to a mind-numbing 34,750 plus, it doesn't take a lithium scientist to say yes, lobbying pays. As for the battle between A123 Systems and Battery-Power, on one hand you could argue that A123 got the job based on their connections to the auto industry and the fact that they intend to build a factory in Michigan. On the other hand, they also spent over ten times more than Battery-Power to “persuade” those in charge to give the dough so ultimately, who knows? In any case, compared to the big boys in DC lobbying, it’s small potatoes. If it means money for green tech well then, more power to them.

    Posted by Dehler August 7, 09 01:14 AM
  1. Boston-Power's batteries do indeed last longer -- about 3x longer than traditional Li-ion batteries. They also charge faster and have a bunch of novel safety features and green benefoits in addition to being longer lasting in terms of chemicals and heavy metals not used in the process. Its beachhead application -- notebooks -- was compelling enough for HP to sign on, and HP's the #1 provider of notebooks worldwide. Boston-Power's cells can power a range of applications.In fact they build cells for PHEV now, recently converted a dealer-purchased Fortd Escape to run on them as an example in just 30 days, and are booking orders in this sector. Funding innovation is great. Good luck to all those companies that received the $. There's more companies worth funding beyond those...and let's hope it happens.

    Posted by notelrac August 7, 09 08:09 AM
  1. For the record, Boston Power has had a plant under construction in China for almost a year. The idea of building a plant here only arose out of the potential of stimulus funding.

    Posted by Jim August 7, 09 10:00 AM
  1. Maybe someone should have a battery olympics to find the true technologies and who is pure hype. I don't believe that Boston Power has a battery that lasts 3x as long... it has to compromise something. Do their PHEV batteries also last 3x as long? Now, do they have the power to move a car adequately? Power and energy density are just two things that classify a batteries use... weight, cost, size, power, energy density, etc. People make certain battery chemistries for different uses.

    Of course, spending lots on lobbying does help. I can not say much with A123 being government connected as someone did, but maybe? A123 may just have a better plan that is more impressive and detailed than other companies.

    Posted by anonymouse August 8, 09 05:23 PM
  1. Love the idea of the Li-ion battery Olympics. The process can include a public, transparent evaluation of criteria and weighting as well as demonstration and judging. Boston-Power believes it has a battery that'll show well and would welcome this. It's certainly true that the company has mass manufacturing in Asia - like the overwhelming majority of Li-ion battery companies, A123 included. It has customer orders to fill. The fact that it's virtually impossible to finance a US-based manuf effort based on private equity and without federal support is what led to the stimulus effort in the first place. Boston-Power was in BusinessWeek last June expressing its desire to bring some of its manufacturing to the US - long before stimulus was even discussed. It makes sense that they pursued the stimulus grant opportunity.

    Posted by notelrac August 10, 09 09:48 AM
 

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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