CEO of MTI carves out career by shrinking mobile electronics

Peng Lim, chief executive officer and chairman of Albany-based Mechanical Technology Inc. and presid

When Peng Lim first went to work in the portable electronics industry in the early 1990s, as the director for engineering for Chicago-based Dauphin Technologies, he worked on portable computers that weren’t very portable.

These early generation laptops were too big, had very little battery life, little processing power and memory, couldn’t be used to communicate without plugging into a phone line, and consumers didn’t know of any need they might have for them.

“They probably weighed about 10 pounds, certainly heavier than any computer we have today,” Lim said.

Flash forward to 2008. Lim has become the chief executive officer and chairman of Albany-based Mechanical Technology Inc. He’s also the president of MTI’s subsidiary, MTI Micro Fuel Cells Inc., a company focused on developing fuel cells for longer-lasting power sources for portable electronic devices. He calls the need to plug into an electric outlet “the last wire” limiting how portable mobile electronics can truly be.

Over the course of the past 17 years, Lim, 45, has had a career that’s taken him from Illinois to California and now Albany, and at each stop he’s been a part of shrinking mobile electronics, cutting their wires, and eliminating other limitations on them.

When he worked for Dauphin, his first management-level job after earning a master’s degree in management in electrical engineering from Northwestern University, his challenge was making the computers smaller. Lim said he and his team took the big, 10-pound portable computers Dauphin was selling to the U.S. Navy and shrunk them down to a “tablet” computer model, with a pen input, that impressed industry insiders.

“That unit was about 2.25 pounds. It [had a] keyboard, a smaller screen and we were pushing a tablet approach. People just didn’t believe we could make the thing that small,” Lim said.

Market research

They also didn’t know what to use it for. Lim said at that time people didn’t own computers in their homes, much less think they had need of them anywhere else. After working for Dauphin, Lim worked as director of advanced portable engineering for Zenith Data Systems, where his career benefited from being privy to some of the very early customer feedback about portable electronic devices

“It’s actually a lot harder to do market research today when the computer has penetrated so widely everywhere and everybody likes different things. That makes it hard to prioritize. In the early days of an industry, while true that volume is smaller, you always pick up the concept that people wanted the most. What are the value tradeoffs? That is the feedback that is the most critically important,” he said. “People wanted the battery life extended as long as possible and they wanted the weight to be as low as possible. Cost is a factor, but power and weight were universal.”

He said finding ways to use the devices to increase productivity and enhance communication were also key customer drivers.

After Zenith, Lim was hired as the vice president of engineering at Fujitsu Personal Systems, where he helped to introduce the first wireless Internet access for computers, effectively cutting the modem cable that tethered a laptop to a phone line.

“Wi-Fi wasn’t even the name at that time. It had no name,” he said.

That work led into his years as vice president for worldwide product development for Palm Computing. During Lim’s tenure he helped Palm capture an estimated 75 percent of the worldwide handheld operating system. Palm’s portable digital assistant devices offered e-mail and scheduling software and became ubiquitous among business executives. Lim, who owned part of the company’s private equity, benefited when it went public.

He said his work at Palm combined all of his earlier efforts to reduce the size of devices, now so small they could be carried in a pocket, and enhance communication abilities. He said the power source for devices was still a major challenge to mobility. Lim next founded his own company, Tapwave, then sold it after the introduction of its only product, the award-winning portable multimedia device called “the Zodiac.” Lim, though only in his early 40s, said he seriously considered retirement.

He said he traveled with his wife, Amy, to many parts of Asia. Peng Lim was born in Malaysia, the third son of six children, and his wife is from Taiwan.

Basic skills

Lim said he learned many of the business skills he still uses growing up inside his parents’ tiny village grocery store.

“I was born into a business family. It was a small business, but nonetheless it was a business,” Lim said. “When looking at a business one of the things that’s very, very important is that when [customers come in] we can provide the thing that they need. And certainly that you have enough courtesy and kindness that they keep coming back.”

Lim’s own need for personal growth — and the chance to work on the last major customer need in portable electronics — led him to MTI Micro. He said when he was given the chance to work on improving the battery life of portable electronics he had to go for it.

Thomas Marusak, a member of MTI’s board of directors, said it didn’t take long after reviewing Lim’s work history for him and the rest of the board to realize they had to hire Lim as president and CEO for MTI Micro. He came aboard in 2005.

“He’s a Steve Jobs kind of guy. He’s the kind of guy who can see the next iPod and recognize that before anybody even knows what he’s talking about,” Marusak said.

“[After he was hired] he took the bull by the horn and spent much of his time, and still spends much of his time, in Asia, interfacing with large consumer electronics companies. He’s able to walk in and command appointments at the highest levels and handle business development challenges with the greatest of ease. So, he’s a technology guy on the surface, but he can get in the ring with the best of the business visionaries.”

George Relan, MTI’s vice president of corporate relations, said Lim changed the way MTI Micro Fuel Cells was developing its methanol fuel cell technology.

“We didn’t have a uniform platform. I think the first thing Peng brought here was a product development philosophy, manufacturing techniques with one platform that can fit all [portable devices],” Relan said.

Under Lim’s direction, MTI Micro developed the Mobion Chip. The Mobion Chip isn’t a computer microchip but a tiny engine that uses methanol fuel to supply power to portable devices. MTI Micro’s engineers have worked to shrink the system’s size and it’s now about as big as a business card.

“To build a fuel cell engine is very, very complicated. It all comes down to how can you design one [system] that can be used in multiple places. That led us to do the Mobion Chip,” Lim said. “If you have to design custom [engines for different applications] you run into problems; for one, it’s not scalable.”

Since Lim came on board MTI, Micro has steadily demonstrated that the Mobion can be used as a power source for portable electronics in a variety of ways. MTI Micro has produced prototype Mobion universal external power chargers, which can recharge cellphones and other handheld devices without the need to plug them into a power grid; snap-on/attached power sources like those used for high-powered digital cameras; and in May for the first time the company showed a Mobion system can be used as replacement technology for internal rechargeable batteries used in devices like cellphones or GPS devices.

Potential asset

The potential advantage of the Mobion methanol power source is much longer use without recharging or plugging into the grid. In the GPS prototype, the Mobion fuel cell lasts three times longer than four disposable AA batteries used to power similar GPS devices now, enabling approximately 60 hours of continuous use.

Lim said he believes the Mobion will provide mobile electronic users with more freedom.

“It’s always true. America learned this 300 years ago. You provide freedom to people and people will accept it, and as a matter of fact, beyond accepting it, they will not go back to the old way,” Lim said. “What we are trying to provide here is providing the customer the freedom, the flexibility, to do their work anytime, anywhere.”

MTI officials are eyeing 2009 for commercialization of at least one of the three types of methanol micro fuel cell products. Lim said they are not yet ready to announce which application will be manufactured for consumer use.

MTI has two subsidiaries, MTI Microfuel Cells and MTI Instruments. MTI Instruments generates revenue for the company; MTI Microfuel Cells is research oriented, and operates in the red.

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