ViZn Energy Systems has laid off all of its 70 employees, with roughly 60 based in the Flathead Valley, and ceased operations at its facility on U.S. Highway 2 south of Columbia Falls, in what company officials are hoping is a temporary furlough while they seek investors and get their finances in order.
Employees were informed of the layoffs on March 16. For a company developing cutting-edge, state-of-the-art battery technology, the jobs covered a wide skilled-professional spectrum, including scientists and engineers, as well as positions in marketing, finance, software and operations.
In an interview, CEO Steve Bonner said the intention is to temporarily furlough the employees as officials negotiate with investors and dedicate their attention to company finances. But in order to qualify employees for unemployment benefits, Bonner said, they had to be officially laid off.
Bonner, who took over as ViZn’s chairman of the board and CEO in January, said the company has been engaged in “encouraging” conversations with potential investors and hopes to have employees back working within a matter of weeks.
“We’ve basically, in my mind, gone into a quiet period, a holding period,” Bonner said Friday morning. “Hopefully we’ll get the funding that we’re lacking and bring everybody back soon and reenergize what we’re doing.”
Since opening under the name Zinc Air in 2009, the firm has positioned itself as a global player in large-scale energy storage technology, with its primary research and development facility, as well as the bulk of its employees, in the Flathead Valley and other employees in Texas, New York, New Jersey and Europe.
ViZn’s highly complex zinc-based redox flow batteries are designed to collect energy from renewable sources, such as solar panels and wind turbines, and store it in sufficient quantities to provide reliable future power. In 2016, the firm unveiled the GS200, a grid-scale energy storage system, which was said to be the largest flow battery in North America and Europe.
Leading up to the layoffs, there had been recent shakeups at the company, including changes in upper management in late 2017 and early 2018. Dave Mintzer, vice president of business development, left the company last fall. Then Craig Wilkins stepped down as chairman, followed by Ron Van Dell resigning as CEO. Bonner, formerly the president and CEO of Cancer Treatment Centers of America, came aboard in January.
Bonner has helped build multiple large businesses, and a Jan. 26 press release announcing the leadership change stated he was an advisor to four private equity firms and an Entrepreneur in Residence at Harvard Business School. He has made several of his own investments in ViZn and said he was drawn to the company because of its mission, ideas and potential to enact significant change.
“The ViZn vision is compelling — a breakthrough battery technology that is safe, cost effective, and able to perform both power and energy services without degradation for 20 years,” Bonner said in the press release. “It is the missing link between accelerating sources of non-dispatchable renewable electricity and efficient delivery to the energy consumer. The zinc-redox flow battery is far superior to the constrained lithium-ion alternative.”
“There is nothing like this today,” Bonner added, “and I am honored to join the ViZn family to further commercialize and scale this innovation.”
Bonner’s enthusiasm hasn’t waned, but, as he says, “no money, no mission.” ViZn has struggled with securing adequate investments for months, a period during which Bonner said the company has been “living hand to mouth.” He said officials have no intention to sell, but rather they’re working to secure key, substantial investors.
“What I’ve learned about VIZn is that everybody admires our technology — no one shoots holes in it,” he said. “They might wish it was more mature and ready to go, but they really love our technology and really love our people.”
Adding that “true innovation and disruption is just not a linear path,” Bonner said it’s a complexly layered process to conceive and convey a groundbreaking idea, develop, test and install the product, and finally roll it out on the market, a next step that he thinks is within reach if negotiations with investors continue going well.
“The future then becomes bright again,” he said.
Bonner acknowledged that the longer it takes, the less likely it is that the original employees will be available.
“They’re talented, they’re smart, they’re visible,” he said. “So if we wait too long, they’ll start moving on to other things.”
ViZn is one of a handful of major companies across the world developing flow battery technology. As of late 2017, industry reports showed that lithium batteries still controlled at least 90 percent of the U.S. battery energy storage market, leaving other technologies such as flow with a minimal market share.
In a December 2017 interview with Energy Storage News, Tom Stepien, CEO of Primus Power, another primary developer of flow batteries, acknowledged the dominance of lithium but said he felt that flow technology would ultimately prove superior for many applications, especially longer-duration projects.
“But today, flow is not as bankable as lithium-ion,” Stepien said. “I think that will change as we get systems out there, as our competitors get things out there, they will be judged on their performance merits. Then I think over time we’ll see that balance change.”
For nearly a decade, ViZn has provided the type of high-paying, skilled-workforce jobs that local economic officials have been striving to attract and develop. A report last year by the Montana High Tech Business Alliance highlighted the growth of Montana’s technology sector. At the time, Van Dell, ViZn’s former CEO, touted the company’s role in the emerging industry.
“ViZn Energy is proud to employ more than 50 scientists, hardware and software engineers, as well as marketing, finance and operations staff in Montana — jobs that pay between $50,000 and $150,000 per year,” Van Dell said when the report was released in March of last year.
The layoffs come less than a year after the Flathead County Economic Development Authority (FCEDA) applied for $300,000 from the Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund on behalf of ViZn to “allow the company to create 40 new jobs in Flathead County,” according to a June 2017 press release.
Kim Morisaki, business development and marketing manager for FCEDA, said ViZn was planning to expand, and the grant funds would have been available as reimbursement once the company created those new jobs. Since the expansion never happened, the funds were never released to ViZn.
“A year ago, they thought they were on the fast track to create a whole bunch of new jobs,” Morisaki said.
Morisaki says a positive outcome for such a prominent employer offering high-paying professional jobs would be an important development for the valley.
“I hope that they’ll be able to find a solution quickly that allows them to develop that technology in the Flathead Valley,” she said.