Washington Governor Woos, But AMSC Has No Imminent Plans to Move

Washington Governor Jay Inslee dashed off a hand-written note to the chief executive of clean energy company AMSC minutes after being sworn in last month, inviting the Massachusetts company to move to the Evergreen State.

It was at least a symbolic gesture, underscoring Inslee’s commitment to building the state’s clean technology sector, a point he made in the opening remarks of his first press conference as governor.

But now it seems that the company, enduring a bruising intellectual property battle with Chinese wind turbine giant Sinovel, isn’t actively seeking to relocate.

The Seattle Times’ Jim Brunner confirmed the identity of the company through a public records request. While Inslee hadn’t previously identified the company, it might have been apparent to attendees at last week’s Washington Clean Technology Alliance policy conference in Seattle, where the governor boasted of writing the note to “a company that does a superconducting technology for transmission systems” as his first official act as governor.

There aren’t many in that particular business. Devens, MA-based AMSC’s Amperium superconductor wires boast substantially reduced energy losses than conventional cables—one possible solution to the transmission bottlenecks that have limited development of renewable energy. But, AMSC’s superconductor wires come at a greater cost, too. AMSC, (NASDAQ: AMSC) formerly known as American Superconductor, also serves the global wind industry with turbine designs and components. It had about 340 employees following a November layoff, according to a report in The Boston Globe.

Inslee told the policy conference: “They’re looking to locate. I’ve talked to their leadership. I want them to locate right here in the state of Washington.”

Inslee provided more details at his Jan. 17 press conference, noting that the company was looking to “reestablish and consolidate both their headquarters and their manufacturing facility, and we have an opportunity to lure them to the state of Washington. I talked to the CEO the week before about that prospect.” He declined to share the name of the company at the time, but said the CEO told him that he was looking for “a place that really gets it when it comes to clean energy.” A photo of Inslee writing the letter was posted to the governor’s Flickr account.

But spokeswomen for Inslee and AMSC now tell The Seattle Times that the company isn’t looking to relocate or open a new U.S. office at present.

Too bad. MIT-spinout AMSC would be an interesting company to have here in Washington, both because of its technology, and because its trials and tribulations over the last two years have the makings of a Hollywood thriller, sweeping up major global themes including the quest for renewable energy and the fraught U.S.-China relationship.

Bloomberg Businessweek did the definitive story last year on AMSC’s battle with Sinovel, formerly its largest customer, which it later accused of corporate espionage and theft of software code for wind turbine control systems and power converters. In late 2011, AMSC pressed its intellectual property claims in multiple Chinese court actions, including what it called the “largest intellectual property case ever undertaken in China.” The cases are ongoing and have resulted in, among other things, AMSC affixing to the end of its press releases one of the longest safe harbor statements I’ve ever seen (PDF).

A final footnote: At the WCTA policy conference, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the keynote speaker, was asked what state and federal governments can do to protect U.S. companies from IP theft when doing business in China. His answer:

“Very little.

“It’s a very big problem when it comes to dealing with China, and from a government standpoint, having the Chinese have these new technologies is not a bad thing, in terms of cleaning up their air. From a competitive business standpoint, it’s a huge problem, in terms of investing and partnering in China.

“But I don’t know of a single industry involved in technology that does not face the challenge of pirated IP in China. It’s just a fact of life.

“I know some industrialists who have developed a big market in China and they are telling themselves this will be a five-year market, because the Chinese will steal our technology, they’ll steal our designs, and they will put their own product in the marketplace that will indistinguishable from ours at a cheaper cost in five years. …

“You can put some temporary fixes in, some temporary protections, but if they really want it, they’ll come after it.”

Gates, former CIA director, added, “this IP problem is not limited to China, although it’s probably the most egregious there.”

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