Tony Formby, cofounder of Squirrel POS Systems and angel investor

For the third edition of our Focus on the Fellows we are highlighting Tony Formby, a Vancouver, B.C. native who has lived throughout North America and played an instrumental role in the development of touch screen user interface technology before becoming an angel investor, focusing the majority of his attention on cleantech.

Tony started his professional life in Ottawa, working as an aid to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General. After five years, he realized he had become jaded in his views and wanted different career opportunities. So in his late twenties he moved back to Vancouver, teamed up with a partner, and entered into the restaurant business, owning two restaurants and running a third on behalf of the owners. During the recession of 1980, the restaurant industry was hit hard and only one of Tony’s restaurants survived the tumult. Around this time Tony and his partner decided to move into the computerization of restaurant point of sales (POS) systems. In 1985 they commercialized Squirrel Systems, the first PC-based, touch-screen user interface. Today, Squirrel POS systems is used by heavyweights such as Apple, Holiday Inn, and Applebee’s.

After significant success with Squirrel Systems, Tony and his partner decided to sell the company and as Tony says, “I saw the opportunity to integrate flat panel display touch screens and customized mother boards with various controllers built into them to create a low profile computer system that could be used in a multitude of process control scenarios, for instance on factory floors or at hotel front desks.” Truly an entrepreneur, Tony worked from home, had no employees, and created contracts with companies that needed products designed for them and then contracted out to a team of engineers and a manufacturer that shipped the product directly to the end user.

After another successful business venture, Tony was able to retire in 2002 and focus his efforts toward investing, with an emphasis on cleantech. Tony attributes his interest in cleantech as a “…result of growing up in probably one of the most beautiful cities in the world and seeing how we in North America tend to waste energy as compared to Europe, where energy is much more expensive.” Some of Tony’s investments include:
CalCars, a group that was pushing car makers to create plug-in hybrids and did the first conversion of a Prius to a plug-in hybrid;
RavenBrick, a Denver developer of thermochromatic window film;
Rahr & Sons Brewing Company; and
SunCentral, a company innovating natural light distribution within buildings.
Tony has a positive but realistic outlook on the future of cleantech. He believes that over the next 10 years, wind and solar will improve and become price competitive, and that solar especially will have a great impact. He compares the improvements in solar to the improvements in the computer industry in the 1980’s. Personal computers didn’t exist until 1980, and before that, a company that needed computing would have to rent computing time from a company such as IBM or NCR. “As the revolution of the personal computer forced the industry to change, the solar industry will continue to evolve, and as more people are able to purchase and install photovoltaics themselves, it will continue to change the dynamic of the grid.”

Tony also sees huge potential in storage. “Once that little mystery is solved, it will bring into play all sorts of things like electric cars, dramatic changes to the grid, and a whole different relationship between utilities and rate payers. Battery storage is probably the most important thing.”
Tony would also like to see a level playing field in which cleantech companies might compete. “If companies using energy had to pay the true cost of that energy, I think businesses, and individuals, would change the way they use energy. Solar, wind and other alternatives would become much more attractive.” But as a seasoned businessman, he is realistic and acknowledges that things won’t change over night. “People will eventually change their views but it will take time.”

Luckily for Tony, the difficulty of the industry is his favorite aspect. He says, “You know that these technologies work. But you also know that they need to work a little bit better. And you know that you have to be really clever about how you go about commercializing them. So it’s a real challenge, and when you get one to work, it’s really gratifying and rewarding because A, it works and you can make some money off it but B, you’ve also made a change.”

For his capstone project, Tony wanted to deal with a more expensive fuel than electricity so he decided to focus on drop-in jet and diesel biofuels and try to compete with barrels of oil that cost $80 to $90. The idea is to take an intermediate feedstock that can be refined by an existing oil refinery. This process takes advantage of the very efficient infrastructure created by the oil industry. Compressed natural gas and hydrogen fuels will have a harder time because the infrastructure needs to be constructed for them. After some initial analysis, Tony realized that while oil seed would work well, there just isn’t enough acreage available to make a significant dent in the percentage of diesel and jet fuel used in the marketplace. So, while Tony is still on the biofuel path, he’s now focusing on a different fuel – algae.

“My project involves a novel design for an industrial scale Photo Bio Reactor (PBR) for algae cultivation. Instead of using large open ponds to grow algae this design uses large thin (60ft X 60ft X 2 inch) clear bags, which are layered one on top of the other with spacing between the layers to drive sunlight between the layers. The structure to support this approach would be similar to a building superstructure made of high strength I beams. This approach is land and water efficient and it also provides a closed and controlled growing environment. This approach can be deployed where land is not abundant but where nutrients are – municipal wastewater plants, food processors, dairies, power generators, and breweries. The algae can be used for waste water remediation, renewable fuels, nutraceuticals, animal feed, and biomass power generation.”

When asked what he values most about the Cleantech Fellows Institute, he says the exposure he’s experienced. There have been times in his career when he has thought, “I really wish I had known this before I went down this business venture.” And that is what the Fellows Institute is giving him, a broad, thorough perspective into this industry called cleantech.