From OneWeb to Hydrogen Fuel Cells…

When OneWeb, a company aiming to bring connectivity to everyone everywhere using an enormous constellation of Low-Earth Orbiting satellites, announced it was filing for bankruptcy the Badger was unsurprised. Why? Because it always felt that the business case was somewhat dubious. Investors now seem to have decided likewise and have ‘drawn stumps’ – to use a cricket metaphor. Others closer to the space industry than the Badger also seem unsurprised by what’s happened – see here for example. It’s sad, of course for everyone working for OneWeb, but in the end this a simple reminder that viable technology isn’t a guarantee of business success. Business is about the juxtaposition of risk and commercial gain, and stakeholders rarely flinch from hard business decisions when the two are out of kilter.

OneWeb cited market and financial turbulence related to the COVID-19 as a factor in failing to attract further funding. With this in his mind, the Badger found himself musing on the combination of technology and business in the post-pandemic world while he walked down the middle of an empty road getting exercise in line with the UK pandemic guidance. The complete absence of traffic on the normally hectic road plus a news item about an advance in materials significant for hydrogen fuel cells, triggered thoughts about whether we will see changes in investment priorities when it comes to vehicular technology after the pandemic is over.

Why would there be, you may ask? Because if you holistically look at, for example, the Royal Society’s briefing on options for producing low-carbon hydrogen at scale, real world experience of using electric and hydrogen fuelled vehicles (e.g. see here), and the relatively slow take up of electric vehicles powered by batteries, then you realise this kind of ‘material’ breakthrough should create an even more enticing investment and business opportunity for vehicle manufacturers and fossil fuel companies (who produce hydrogen) alike. The Badger, whose early roots were in materials technology, senses that the real scientific and engineering advances that could flow from the news item will significantly boost the business case for adopting hydrogen fuel cells for transportation and, accordingly, we will see business investment in this arena rise significantly in the coming years.

By the time the Badger had finished walking down the middle of the road, he had decided that everyone is more likely to be driving cars powered by a hydrogen fuel cell by the end of the decade than to have embraced driverless cars on public roads. (Tomorrow’s exercise might, of course, modify this conclusion!) As OneWeb shows, technology doesn’t mean business success, but any company that has bet the farm on the dominance of battery-powered vehicles should watch out, because hydrogen fuel cells are definitely coming along to eat your lunch…

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