After all these years, still pining for critical mass

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What do you do when you run out of gas in the middle of the desert? You could be out of luck, especially if you’re out of cell-phone range. With a bit of fortune, a kindly motorist will stop, give you a lift to the next gas station, and you’ll find your way back to your not-yet-vandalized vehicle.

But you’ll have learned your lesson. You won’t ever again stray far from the comforting networks of cell-phone towers, convenience stores, air-conditioned bars and all the comforts of urban life.

A century and a half ago, Colorado Springs was a desert — a largely unpopulated, if scenic, stretch of undulating prairie that contained few resources to sustain man or beast.

Now we’re a mini-metropolis of 650,000 souls — except to the folks at the Economic Development Corporation, who view us still as a desert of sorts.

Just as you might yearn for a convenience store in the desert, the EDC’s Mike Kazmierski yearns wistfully for high-tech startups that might turn into the next Google or Facebook.

He knows that our now robust military presence may fade in years to come, and that we need to grow our own companies as well as importing them from elsewhere. Otherwise, we’re like the guy in the desert with an empty gas can — dependent upon the kindness of strangers.

We’ve been trying to build a self-sustaining technology network for at least 30 years, and we haven’t succeeded. For a glimpse of what it takes, and what we don’t have, consider a few excerpts from a story that recently appeared in Silicon Valley’s Mountain View Voice.

“Armed with expertise gained from pushing electric car technology to the limit in race cars, NASA Ames-based Kleenspeed is announcing plans to develop an affordable electric passenger car for mass production.

“Taking the company in this new direction is CEO Timothy Collins. … Though design details are under wraps, he says the goal is to build a $20,000 car by 2011 that can go 200 miles on a charge (the battery pack would be paid for separately in a monthly lease). A prototype is in design, and the company plans to unveil by end of the summer this year. It’s been dubbed the “Kleenspeed project.”

“We are in the final stages completing the design,” Collins said. “It will probably be two to three months before we have a prototype ready to announce.”

“If electric cars are the future, then Kleenspeed could be ahead of the game.

“The advantage of testing electric vehicle systems in a racing car is you’re pushing them as far as they’ll go,” Collins said.

“The company’s “crown jewel” is an electric race car based on an IMSA lights racer. Last July it set the electric car lap record at Laguna Seca in Monterey at 1 minute, 42 seconds.

“But the company says that doesn’t come close to the performance potential for electric race cars. A 200-mile-per-hour Formula One race car is sitting in the shop now, awaiting development of an electric engine and drive train comparable to its 650 horsepower gas engine. “This is an awesome research platform,” said Kleenspeed’s chief technology officer Dante Zeviar.

“The company is getting help in building a prototype from another NASA Ames tenant called Contactscale, owned by Dan Bolfing. Contactscale is housed in the service bays of the shuttered gas station at NASA Ames, just a few steps away from the former Home and Garden Center that houses Kleenspeed.

“Bolfing is an expert in the use of composites who got his start as a teenager making surfboards in his garage. He now uses computer-controlled equipment to produce composite car body shells. ..”

NASA’s Ames Research Center is home to government researchers and research projects, as well as private ventures such as Kleenspeed and Contactscale. The same synergies that enabled tinkerers and geeky car guys to create America’s hot rod culture in 1940s California are at work at Ames, and throughout Silicon Valley.

We’d love to have Kleenspeed here in the Springs — they could even lease the Colorado Avenue garage where the Unser clan once built racecars that ruled Pikes Peak. But they wouldn’t have Contactscale down the street, or droves of venture capitalists looking for deals, or Croatian supergeeks like Dante Zeviar to design their cars.

Tomorrow’s masters of composite technology may be building skateboards on the west side today, but they’ll probably leave as soon as they can for greener pastures. Geeks of a feather flock together, and despite UCCS, Colorado College, the Air Force Academy, and all of our here today-gone tomorrow tech companies, we’ve yet to achieve critical mass.

But if we had managed to build an intricate technological web to rival Silicon Valley’s, I’m sure that CEO Collins might trade his San Francisco townhouse for a nice pad in the North End.

After all, he was born here — and left at 17, seeking a larger life.

Hazlehurst can be reached at john.hazlehurst@csbj.com or 719-227-5861. Watch him at 7:20 a.m. every Tuesday and Friday on Channel 3, Fox Morning News.