Daniel Crivello | Posted: Monday, April 18, 2011 12:30 am
In March 2008, under some of Northern California's tallest trees, Provo resident and business entrepreneur Glenn Jakins was camping with his family when the raucous, vibrating whine of a neighboring RV generator suddenly shattered the quiet of the redwood forest.
The racket carried on for hours as Jakins, then 41, became increasingly irritated. Eventually it shook loose an idea: Jakins vowed to invent a portable generator that was silent.
How he became an energy innovator is the latest chapter in a remarkable story of a man whose stock in trade is overcoming challenges. Jakins has poured his frenetic energy into numerous creative business ventures, vigorously probing for markets with products of his own design, from stuffed toys to artful handbags, computer cases, iPad covers, a steam generator and a modern material for transferring graphic images permanently onto any object.
Some ideas were doomed, others moderately successful. Jakins's fortunes have risen and fallen like a yo-yo. He's been broke more than once. Former associates were less than honest. Foreign manufacturers have both served and failed. He's been unfairly attacked by the Internal Revenue Service (which eventually settled).
Through it all he's raising a family of four kids in northeast Provo with his wife Dara, and coaching a world-class rugby team. He doesn't think much of American football.
A notable recent success is The Original Scrapbox, an armoire-style organizer for crafts enthusiasts -- especially scrapbookers. His holding company, Ensign Group International in Provo, recently released a desktop version with a glass-like top that allows viewing and selection of a potpourri of goods for hobbyists. He has tests going with retail giant Costco, which are looking good.
And remember the camping trip in California? Enter the "Humless" solar-electric generator -- a silent power plant that is getting attention from the Federal Aviation Administration and the military for a variety of applications.
AT AGE 22, Jakins was still in his native South Africa. He's in the 12th generation of family members who settled the country. He had served two years as a counter-insurgency officer in the South African Navy and two years as a LDS missionary, opening up South West Africa (now Namibia) to his church.
When South Africa plunged into political and racial turmoil in 1990, and after he had been victimized by 10 burglaries in just one year, Jakins decided to look abroad for better, safer opportunities. Lacking the financial wherewithal, he volunteered as a yacht hand in exchange for passage halfway around the globe to the United Kingdom. He hoped to earn sufficient money for eventual travel to the United States.
After consuming all the leftover food from the yacht, he improvised as a bricklayer and painter, though he had done neither before. But he didn't disappoint his boss who had been willing to give any South African a chance. They had reputations as hard-workers.
After five months of socking away cash, Jakins had enough to buy an airline ticket to New York and eventually to Utah, where a brother and sister awaited. Jakins's parents and the rest of his siblings would later come, too, thanks to his father, a high-ranking officer of the South African army, who spent his entire life savings to make emigration to Utah possible for his family. All five children studied at BYU as international students.
AFTER 20 YEARS in the U.S., most of them in Utah County, Jakins now owns six businesses that rack up millions of dollars in revenue, including The Original Scrapbox. His mother, an artist, designs hand-painted bags for LDS scriptures and general purposes and his daughter helps with marketing.
But on his time off, Jakins enjoys getting together with a string of old friends from South Africa who've also come to Utah County. They like to reminisce about the old days. Most came here with nothing, and a few now are millionaires.
A brother holds an MBA from BYU and recently stepped up as the CEO of the Ensign Group to give Jakins more time for sales and development. "This country has been good to all of us," Jakins said.
WHEN HE SALLIED FORTH into his latest project, developing a silent generator, Jakins quickly realized he needed to look at clean energy solutions. He wanted a battery that could load up a charge quickly and store enough power to run lights or a refrigerator for several days. The battery would have to be smaller and lighter than the standard lead-acid battery, and most of all, environmentally friendly.
It was during a trip to China that he discovered a lithium-iron-phosphate battery that would power the Humless generator.
"I don't know of any American manufacturing these batteries because it's too expensive," Jakins said. "So we go to Asia and get the cost down."
In recent years, China has spent enormous sums on clean energy technology, rapidly becoming a powerhouse and pushing hard to grab the lead in energy exports. With aggressive government subsidies, it has now surpassed the U.S. in clean energy investment, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. In 2009, China's investment in such technology topped $34 billion, almost double the figure of $18 billion in the U.S. And in 2010, it totaled $51 billion, a dizzying 30 percent increase in one year.
"I must have been to China 40 times," said Jakins. "The first 30 times, you couldn't even see the sun most days, just an orange dot going across the sky. But since the Olympics in 2008, it's been a lot cleaner."
The batteries used for the humless generator, which Jakins' team assembles in Provo for quality control, are one-third the mass of lead-acid batteries of comparable storage found in the U.S. They can be charged in two hours, instead of 30, and recharged 2,000 times, touting a 10-year life expectancy.
"People are reluctant to use batteries because, until now, they've been inefficient, heavy and bad for the environment," he said. "But battery technology has made so many leaps and strides."
The standard Humless, with 50 amp-hours of electricity at 12 volts (600 watt hours) will run a full-size refrigerator for a day. Or a sewing machine for 12 hours. Or a washing machine for two full cycles.
Or it can provide light and entertainment. A 6-watt LED light bulb (equivalent to 60-watt incandescent bulb) will run for 100 hours. A 30-inch TV with DVD can run for 20 hours.
And a 120-watt solar panel can recharge the battery in about 8 hours. Not bad.
China's contribution to the Provo entrepreneur doesn't stop here. For $139, an optional solar panel can be mounted to the Humless generator, turning on a charge-while-you-use feature and making the product essentially self-perpetuating, as long as the sun is out. Jakins even has a hand-crank generator that can recharge the device in emergencies -- providing physical fitness to the user, along with stored electricity. Jakins grins when he says it.
THAT THE U.S. IS NOW OUTPACED in solar panel manufacturing -- and even as a market -- frustrates some politicians, who are calling for increased incentives to help clean energy innovators like Jakins. But critics, who are wary of more stimulus spending, say government shouldn't pick winners and losers by favoring a technology.
Utah Governor Herbert said he won't follow the federal model of "forcing" reform through government incentives, but will rely on the time-proven principle of free enterprise.
Utah lags behind most states in clean energy incentives, ranking 40th, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, but this figure doesn't seem to bother Jakins -- though he admits raising money has been one of the hardest things about the Humless project.
For someone who came here for the American Dream, he sure does it the American Way: "We have borrowed from our friends," he said. "We paid a decent return on investment. And we've never been late to any of our investors."
Jakins and his team rolled out the Humless Generator last December and already received more than 50 orders. A surprise customer: the FAA, which wants to test the generator and associated lighting attachments as emergency equipment on runways.
JAKINS IS A FREE SPIRIT who insists he won't rely on the government to help with anything. "Just come up with great ideas and chase them," he said.
And chasing the next idea, and the next, he does very well. His team has modified a vintage 1960 Volkswagen bus to become one of Utah's first 100 percent electric vehicles. The bus boasts a 200-mile range on one charge and 0 to 60 miles per hour in about 5 seconds, another clean-energy innovation.
While industry experts predict that drivers will soon have two kinds of cars -- an electric one for commuting and puttering around down and a hybrid for longer trips -- the question still begs, is Utah embracing the burgeoning clean energy technology?
Jakins certainly is. But there's much that remains to be seen.
UTAH HAS AN ABUNDANCE of coal -- a not-so-clean resource -- and a governor who won't write it off as too dirty. "Coal mining, coal transportation and coal-fired power plants in Utah create tens of thousands of jobs, many of them in rural Utah where job opportunities are often limited," says Herbert.
Oil and gas severance taxes account for more than $70 million in revenue; property taxes from the energy industry are in excess of $100 million annually, and sales and use taxes are estimated to be $63 million, according to a government report issued in 2010.
By contrast, the Navajo Nation, which occupies land in southeast Utah, announced last October that it seeks to replace coal power with wind- and solar-power alternatives, a first in Utah, which currently ranks 46th in renewable energy use.
"There are people in the private sector -- and, honestly, in government -- that want to maintain Utah's long tradition of extraction of fossil fuels," said Kevin Emerson, a senior policy and regulatory associate at Utah Clean Energy, a Salt Lake City-based non-profit organization. "And that's not going to change overnight."
Utah's love affair with coal, whose emissions are said to be linked to various health problems, can be dispiriting to the lawmakers who long for a clean energy policy. Most realize it's inconceivable to ask the state to give up on its natural resources.
Sixty percent of the state's land and is federal, and that's where its massive reserves of oil shale, oil sand and clean natural gas lie. Those reserves could literally make the nation energy-independent, according to some experts. But the Obama administration has thrown up barrier after barrier to its extraction.
Today's lowball consensus is that Utah has the equivalent of 800 million barrels of useful oil, but it may range as high as 1 trillion barrels. And extraction technologies are becoming ever cleaner.
One indicator of a changing political landscape: Utah lawmakers last month debated a bill that would create a Utah Office of Energy Development.
Gov. Herbert is urging Utahns to consider building a nuclear power plant and position the state to become not only a user but an exporter of clean energy, growing Utah's economy. "There is one point that President Obama made during his State of the Union with which I wholeheartedly agree," Herbert said. "The nation that leads in clean energy will be the nation that leads the global economy."
MEANWHILE, PROVO ENTREPRENEUR Glenn Jakins keeps on doing his thing -- changing people's energy expectations one project at a time. You can see him in his green Humless VW tooling around town most days.
The seeming victory of China in the energy field doesn't worry Jakins, having experienced first-hand what he says is that country's shortfall in innovation.
At the start of his project, Jakins said he had asked Chinese engineers to blueprint his Humless generator because the battery technology already existed in that country. But when the designs were submitted -- work that could have been mistaken for the "artwork of kindergarteners," Jakins said -- he decided to shift strategies and hire an American electrical engineer for the job.
"In one day, he designed something magnificent that really worked," he said.
"Americans have imagination and innovation," Jakins said. "And that's what it's going to take -- what we can actually do with these new technologies."
But what about rugby? Jakins coaches the Humless 7's of Provo, which won 30 of 34 matches in their first season in a national amateur rugby tournament this season. He also serves on the executive board for the BYU Cougar Rugby Foundation.
It's a rough-and-tumble game that provides a model for business.
"It's very similar," Jakins said. "We don't expect to get results without hard work."
• Daniel Crivellow is a freelance writer from Utah County. Follow him on Twitter athttp://twitter.com/dannyherald.
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Posted in Local, Provo, Local on Monday, April 18, 2011 12:30 am Updated: 3:44 pm. | Tags: Glenn Jakins, Humless, Energy, Entrepreneur, Green Energy
We here @ Brothers Scrap & Hauling Love reading & hearing about Companies like Humless! Glen Jakins is a man with a great head on his shoulders! Way to go GREEN!