Ryan Popple, 39, led an Army tank platoon, got an MBA at Harvard, and worked at Tesla, the electric car company, and Kleiner Perkins, a venture capital firm, before joining Proterra, a manufacturer of battery-powered transit buses, as CEO.
In 2010 Proterra came to Greenville from Golden, Colo., as a startup venture. Later, the company moved its headquarters to the San Francisco area and opened a second plant in the Los Angeles area. It has reported raising $345 million from investors.
Greenville continues to be Proterra’s East Coast base, home to its largest factory, vehicle engineering department, and more than half of its 300 employees.
UBJ interviewed Popple on July 18 at the company’s factory along Interstate 85 in Greenville.
What is Proterra’s market share?
“On electric buses, we are anywhere between 60 and 70 percent of the market, depending on if you count new orders or you count actual deployments. We’ve deployed more buses by far than any other provider in the North American market, in terms of electric bus technology. When you compare us to the overall bus market, we’re still in single digit percentages of the market.”
Who are the other players?
“The only real competition we see comes from a diesel bus manufacturer in Canada that has an electric version of its steel diesel bus. That company is called New Flyer. And the other company we compete against is a company headquartered in China with a manufacturing operation in the U.S. called BYD.”
BMW’s venture capital arm was part of your latest funding round. I’m curious as to how that relationship began and whether Proterra’s presence in the Upstate, home to BMW’s largest plant, had anything to do with it.
“… The partner at BMW ventures who initiated the investment is named Zach Barasz, and he is based in Silicon Valley. So he was looking at companies that were doing innovative things in mobility that could be interesting to BMW. So I think it got started as a lot of these investments do with networking within Silicon Valley. That’s still where probably 50 percent of venture capital deals originate in the U.S. … Certainly a lot of people at BMW knew of Proterra before that investment professional brought forward the thesis. BMW has a real expertise in lightweight materials and, increasingly, an expertise in electric vehicles. So we were working on a lot of things that were closely related to where they may be going longer term.”
Does Proterra plan an initial public offering?
“It’s certainly a possibility. We can’t talk in any specifics in terms of timing, though, or our thoughts on it, because it could be viewed as an effort to market an IPO and that’s not allowable under (Securities and Exchange Commission) regulations. … It’s possible that we go public, and given that it is possible, we have to be very careful about making sure that we’re not doing anything to … generate excitement about an offering before we actually have SEC approval.”
Can you talk about why Proterra might want to do an IPO?
“Yeah. There is a lot of investor interest in buying shares in the company, and we’re getting to the point where it’s inefficient to entertain one-off conversations with investors that want to own a part of what we’re doing. I think the thesis that heavy-duty transit buses are going to go electric is getting broad acceptance within the financial markets. … The other aspect of it is, if you get beyond a certain number of shareholders, I believe you’re required to become a public company. … The downside of going public is your regulatory costs go up. You’ve got to spend more on lawyers and accountants. You have to be more careful about what you say in a conversation like this. I can’t say anything that would give a certain individual or investor an unfair advantage.”
Are there any future scenarios for Proterra that don’t involve an IPO?
“Proterra could remain a private company. There are certainly some advantages to that. We’ve been able to access capital very efficiently relative to other private companies, so I think we’re in a very good situation compared to most private companies. We’re quite mature. So we could certainly just operate the company as a stand-alone, independent company. There’s always a possibility that Proterra could be acquired or we could merge with another company. It’s not something that I would encourage us to do unless we saw a very strong commitment from an acquiring company in terms of wanting to get our technology into the market.”
What effect would an IPO have on the company and on its Greenville operations?
“I think there are a lot of good ripple effects from that. One, the fact that a company that really started and scaled in Greenville, S.C., would end up listing as a public company on a major stock exchange is a really big deal. In most parts of the country, there aren’t that many IPOs. They’re pretty rare. The other thing is that the people that work at this facility and have been a part of this journey will understand a lot more about how you build a technology company from start to exit. I look at the experience I got in Tesla during the first three years of my career and that experience helped prepare me for this. It’s very difficult to just go out and start a company if you’ve never done it before. … (Proterra going public) would be a great experience. And you’d have a couple hundred people, ideally, who are in this area, who know what it was like, who’ve done it before.”