Ashland's Ambiente looks to Brazil partnership

Melissa Brandao, a Southern Oregon University graduate who returned to Ashland two years ago, bringing with her Barefoot Motors, now plans to go international.

Brandao said her company, Ambiente Motors, will build three prototypes here and launch production with a partner company outside Brazil's principal industrial city of Sao Paulo as early as 2012.

The 1-ton vehicles are targeted for delivery and shipping companies, airport operations, government agencies and public service organizations with larger fleets. Commercial customers already have maintenance yards, delivery routes and the ability to set up charging stations, she said. The price for the electric pickups will be equivalent to $32,000.

"We looked at the 30 largest logistics companies in Brazil," Brandao said, noting many of them are American, which will reduce some of the hurdles in starting up in a foreign country.

Brandao will share her vision with Jefferson Grapevine, a group connected with Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc. that meets to introduce investors to startup companies. She speaks at 5 p.m. Wednesday, July 21, at EdenVale Winery, 2310 Voorhies Road. Brandao has been in discussions with Brazilian manufacturers and is confident a deal is forthcoming.

"We plan to take our technology down there and find a partner," she said. "We're not in business to manufacture. We're an engineering and marketing company."

Brandao has lived in Mexico City, Sao Paulo and Moscow, which played a role in targeting Brazil.

"I knew I wanted to target Brazil, Russia, India and China, the largest economic developing nations that are growing the fastest with a lot of power," she said. "I decided on Brazil for a number of reasons. Brazil has an 85 percent renewable energy portfolio, ours by comparison is 3 percent. They've done a lot with alternative energy such as compressed natural gas and ethanol. Today, ethanol supplies more than 50 percent of their energy."

The obstacles to developing an electric 1-ton truck in Ashland and producing it in Brazil for use in South America are more than geographical, she admitted.

"Money is an obstacle, always money," she said. "We need half a million dollars to create a design and innovation center here where we will create the drive train."

Ultimately, it will take between $4 million and $6 million to fund the local operation that would have about 20 employees. Ambiente Motors will license its drive train technology to the Brazilian manufacturer, earning royalties on each unit.

Brandao got her start in the alternative transportation industry working for electric scooter distributor ZAP (Zero Air Pollution).

"I liked the technology and potential to move away from polluting-type vehicles," she said.

She launched electric farm utility vehicle maker Barefoot Motors in Sebastopol, Calif., and moved to Ashland in 2008. She sold her remaining interest in the company early last year and began looking for her next project.

"Ambiente is not trying to be a high-tech company," Brandao said. "We're taking off-the-shelf components, utilizing technology that is out there and capitalizing on lower costs. The best place for development is a component company; manufacturers are really aggregators of components."

Drew Kennedy, a member of the Jefferson Grapevine vetting committee, said the distance separating the designing and manufacturing units will provide challenges.

"It's very ambitious," said Kennedy, a former chief financial officer for several Silicon Valley firms. "I think she has the talent to get it underway. It's going to be a large international operation so she's going to have to supplement her managerial skills with international talent with truck and auto manufacturing experience. She's going to have to go out and get people for marketing, sales and manufacturing. It's not something you can train in-house. The time lines are short, so you have to go out and get the talent from existing companies."

Even with its complexities, not the least of which is a 7,000-mile separation, Kennedy hopes Brandao can find backers.

"There is a fair amount of risk," he said. "But I think she deserves a platform to put the management team together."

The plan is to build three prototypes and ship one to Brazil for testing by the manufacturer. A second will be operated by Southern Oregon University.

"We'll try to push it through its paces and really test it out," said Drew Gilliland, director of Facilities Management and Planning at SOU. "We'll mainly use it for driving around on campus, deliver supplies, carry tools and repair parts, ferry employees, and just about anything needed for maintenance. It should be considered pretty severe duty."

A third prototype will be a work in progress at the Ambiente shop.

"This is a good climate and good testing place," Brandao said. "You have both the ocean and snow within a close area."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or e-mail

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