Aptera Faces More Than Leadership Troubles After Founders’ Official Exit

Just a few months have passed since three-wheeled vehicle developer Aptera Motors announced one of its co-founders, Chris Anthony, would be “stepping aside from day-to-day activities,” and the other co-founder, Steve Fambro, would be taking an extended vacation amid rumors the pair were ousted in a boardroom showdown. Now Aptera says Fambro won’t be returning to work, after all. According to a newsletter Aptera sent out this week, he “will leave the day to day operations as CTO and head of Advanced Concepts to rededicate his time and attention toward pushing new and breakthrough technology.”

It’s not uncommon for the reins to change hands at a startup — the idea-generating go-getters with the vision to create a company aren’t always those who want (or who investors want) to manage the business as it grows. And the individual or team that births an idea isn’t always the one that innovates and executes it . But as Tesla Motors has demonstrated, even conflict between a departing founder and the new executive team doesn’t necessarily spell doom for a young greentech company: In the years since Tesla’s founders left the company, it has gone to court and engaged in a public war of words with one of them, but nonetheless continued to grow, build and sell cars, win a coveted federal loan and, last week, file for an IPO.

But while the departure of Aptera’s founders from day-to-day operations (they’ll retain seats on the board of directors) should not be seen as a catastrophe for the startup, it shouldn’t overshadow the very significant hurdles still facing the company, either — no matter who’s leading it. As CEO Paul Wilbur put it in a release last November, development efforts at the startup have “been outpacing the rate of fundraising.”

According to that November release, dwindling cash reserves forced Aptera to delay production of its inaugural vehicle, the three-wheeled electric 2e, until 2010 rather than the end of last year as previously announced. But as we’ve noted before, hitting the new 2010 target (or any future production goal for that matter), will require Aptera to bring in fresh capital, and it’s banking on either a federal loan or private investment to come through.

The longer Aptera awaits funding and delays its launch, the more competition it will find if and when the electric 2e finally rolls out. By some Silicon Valley startup standards, Aptera already has deep-pocketed backers — Google.org, Idealab, David Gelbaum’s Quercus Trust and others have invested more than $24 million in the company. But compared to the legacy automakers preparing to roll out plug-in vehicles over the next couple years at relatively high volume, and the startups (Tesla and Fisker Automotive) that have won half-billion dollar federal loans for planned plug-in projects, Aptera’s resources are meager.

Aptera has scored eligibility for the Department of Energy’s green car loan program (until last fall, this was only open to the regular four-wheeled breed), but approval of the $75 million it’s requested is a long shot. To start, the program’s current budget simply won’t be enough to cover the more than 90 projects that have reportedly requested funding. In addition, as Lux Research senior analyst Jacob Grose told us in December:

“I would imagine that four-wheeled vehicles will continue to get the nod given that, unlike Asia, to date there has been no appetite in the U.S. for electric vehicles with less than four wheels.”

The company’s biggest asset at this point seems to be its enthusiastic core of would-be early adopters, nearly 4,000 of whom had made deposits (fully refundable) for the 2e as of November 2009. And the highly unusual, ultra-aerodynamic design of Aptera’s inaugural model could be a saving grace if it comes to market relatively late in the game — nothing quite compares to the 2e. But if the company hopes to follow through on Fambro’s plan, described in 2007, to ultimately deliver “more mainstream” products, the heat’s on. In a few years, going “mainstream” with an electric vehicle could mean going head to head with companies like General Motors, Nissan and Toyota.