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HOW I MADE IT: BALWINDER SAMRA

Trucking toward a port-pollution solution

The Port of Los Angeles is the technology incubator for Samra's company, Balqon, which is supplying the major smog source with heavy-duty electric cargo trucks.

March 22, 2009|Ronald D. White

The gig: Founder and chief executive of one of Los Angeles' smallest publicly traded firms. Balqon Corp. is a 12-employee company that recently completed the assembly of the first in a series of heavy-duty electric trucks that will be hauling cargo at the Port of Los Angeles, the nation's busiest container port. The L.A. port has signed on for 25 trucks at a cost of $5.7 million. Samra is hoping to market the technology to railroads and others.

Family influence: Samra, 46, who was born near New Delhi, is the first male in his family to choose a civilian career over the military. Samra jokes that his civilian status makes him "the only wimp in the family," but discipline seems to run in his blood. Samra says he barely allowed himself to sleep during college and often works as late as 1 a.m.

Background: Samra came to the U.S. in 1980 and went to work on his first day in the country at Micro Peripherals in Chatsworth. Later, as the quality-control manager for a U.S. electronics firm called Flextronics, he held overseas factories to a 100-point efficiency and quality measurement standard, demanding that each subcontractor show improvement in performance annually. He held himself to the same rigid standards when he formed Balqon in 2005.

Education: Chemical engineering degree from Panjab University. Samra says he has never used his chemical engineering training and viewed every firm that contracted with his employers as a case study on how to run a business.

The problem: Samra's company had the expertise to design its electric vehicle but didn't have the capital or a location suitable for a vehicle assembly line.

The breakthrough: In the Port of Los Angeles, Samra found the rough equivalent of a venture capitalist and a technology incubator desperate for answers to Southern California's biggest single source of air pollution. Under an arrangement with the port and the South Coast Air Quality Management District, Balqon got $527,000 in seed money to build and test a prototype. Samra was required to move his company across the county line from Santa Ana to Los Angeles, and he found an office park facility in Harbor City that was large enough to work on several trucks at once.

Coming together: The truck chassis arrives pre-assembled, but without an engine or a standard transmission. Power is generated through two trays of seven forklift batteries. Samra doesn't talk about the controller itself or the software that runs it. "That would be the secret sauce," he quips.

Hobbies: None. The Laguna Hills resident is so busy with his new truck line that he has time only for work.

Bare bones: Walk into the Balqon offices, and no one greets you. The company is hiring engineers first and a receptionist later. Samra's office has that just-moved-in look, even though Balqon relocated seven months ago. A copy of Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" sits untouched on the corner of his desk where a Christmas gift-giver left it. "Maybe by next Christmas," he says.

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ron.white@latimes.com

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