October 16, 2017

After Norwegian merger, Friedland moves on from Proton OnSite

Departing from Wallingford's Proton OnSite after more than 20 years, Robert Friedland said the company is in good hands with its new Norwegian owner.
Matt Pilon

The longtime leader of a key player in the state's fuel cell ecosystem is moving on from the Wallingford company he helped found 22 years ago.

Robert Friedland, who has led Proton Onsite as president and CEO since 2008, worked his last day at the company on Sept. 29.

Proton, which makes high-tech membranes used in machines that generate hydrogen, was acquired by Norway's NEL ASA in a $70 million deal that closed at the end of June.

Friedland said in a recent interview that he had discussed a new role with NEL's leadership, but ultimately decided to strike out on his own.

"I looked at it and said 'I've brought this company to a pretty good place and I think it's time for me to turn the page and kind of see what else is out there,' " Friedland said. "It's a good thing going out on my terms and I think it's the right time and I think the new guys that own us are going to do a good job."

One of those new guys is Anders Soreng, NEL's chief technology officer, who is now living in Connecticut and running the Wallingford operation.

Friedland doesn't have a new full-time gig lined up yet. He planned to take a few months off, but it's a tight-knit industry, and when others heard he would be leaving Proton, calls about potential consulting jobs began coming in.

Proton was founded in 1996. The company went public four years later, but fell on hard times, losing nearly $50 million in 2007. Its parent, which also owned a Vermont-based wind company, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2008, which resulted in a delisting of its stock on Nasdaq.

Later that year, a company owned by Lumber Liquidators founder Tom Sullivan bought Proton for $10.2 million.

"When he bought the company, we were at about $11 million in revenue and this year we'll be over $30 million in revenue," Friedland said. "We brought the company to profitability during the last 10 years."

The Northeast's cluster of hydrogen companies, which includes fuel cell makers like Doosan and FuelCell Energy, booked $1.4 billion in revenue in 2015, according to the Northeast Electrochemical Energy Storage Cluster, administered by the East Hartford-based Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology.

Proton, which today has just shy of 90 employees, sells its products into the industrial markets for use in processes like semiconductor manufacturing, power plant cooling, and chemical and food processing.

Its technology is also used in hydrogen fueling stations for fuel-cell vehicles, which is an emerging market. Proton built the state's first hydrogen fueling station outside of its headquarters. A commercial-scale station is slated to open by year's end in Hartford, built by Air Liquide.

Most Popular on Facebook
Copyright 2017 New England Business Media