Bixby Energy now running on fumes

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Cirrus Vision SF 50. Photo credit: Cirrus Aircraft Corp.

Bixby Energy Systems, a Minnesota company with technology that promised to extract natural gas from coal, is now running on fumes.

In a recent letter to the privately held company's investors, former board chairman Gil Gutknecht and other board members said legal, technical and financial problems make it difficult to continue, though some shareholders plan to try.

Gutknecht, a former congressman and Bixby investor who stepped in to lead the company during its securities-fraud crisis last year, has resigned from the board, as have Jim Bergeron and Dave Merhar. The company's four paid employees were laid off in February, the letter said.

Though the company has customers for its coal-to-gas technology in China, engineers have struggled for months to get the first units working. The investor letter said Bixby amended its deal with a China-based partner, GPU, allowing that company to keep trying.

Bixby has been talking to a U.S. coal company about investing in the technology, which may offer the last chance to revive the Ramsey-based company.

Meanwhile, two men who fraudulently solicited Bixby investors await sentencing in federal court, and the company's founder and former CEO, Bob Walker, awaits trial on charges he fraudulently raised $43 million from 1,800 Bixby investors. Prosecutors say the investors are "left with nothing."

DAVID SHAFFER

WHASSUP AT CIRRUS!?

Cirrus Aircraft of Duluth, a rocket of a single-engine aircraft company until the 2008-09 recession, plans a significant announcement this week.

The betting money says the company, sold last year to China Aviation Industry General Aircraft Co., may announce plans involving production of its long-awaited jet for the general aviation market. Cirrus officials, mum last week, have promoted co-founder Dale Klapmeier, the driver behind the low-cost jet, to CEO of the recovering company, replacing a several-year executive brought in by the last owner.

Shipments by U.S. aircraft manufacturers plummeted by about 50 percent in 2009 and another 15 percent in 2010. Business rebounded last year. Cirrus, with revenue of about $200 million, said it shipped 89 of its single-engine, propeller-driven SR-series aircraft in the fourth quarter, its best since 2008.

The deep-pocket Chinese investors are considered keen to get the jet out the hanger door. The estimated $140 million project, which has produced a flying prototype, is key to new markets. Cirrus said last fall that about 450 people had each put down $100,000 deposits to own one of the $1.7 million small jets. Check out video of a Cirrus test jet and SR22s soaring the skies at www.cirrusaircraft.com/multimedia.

NENA SEARCHES STREETS FOR ROBOTICS HOME

Nena Street, an attorney at Fredrickson & Byron, is CEO of fledgling "Robotics Innovation," an outfit formed to locate a "Global Robotics Innovation Park."

Street is working with Andrew Borene, a former law school classmate at the University of Minnesota. Borene, an executive with ReconRobotics, heads Roboticsalley.org, which is attempting to establish the Twin Cities as a national robotics hub. See today's "Viewpoint" Q&A on Page D3 with Borene and Chuck Thorpe, the Obama Administration's point man on next-generation manufacturing.

Street says the training center at the now-closed St. Paul Ford plant is in the running as a possible location for an industry-backed center of excellence, which would bring together academic research and small and established companies in defense, energy, manufacturing and surgical robotics. The training center is owned by the state and the autoworkers union, according to Street. It's about half the size of a small Target store.

Short Takes

Sam Grabarski, outgoing CEO of the Downtown Council, and former council chairman Tim O'Connor, an insurance executive, take particular pride in the Currie Avenue Partnership that melded the downtown business community, St. Stephen's Human Services and individuals who raised about $700,000 over the past three years to reduce street homelessness, assist people and improve safety downtown. About 40 percent of the several hundred homeless folks downtown, many with physical and mental health problems, have been assessed, housed, assisted and are no longer on the street. Some are working. Homelessness is bad for people, communities and business. John Griffith, a Target executive and Downtown Council board member, will host a luncheon for St. Stephen's Human Services, a community treasure that works on a thin budget. Date: May 2, at noon at the Downtown Hilton. More information: www.ststephensmpls.org.

The Minnesota Credit Union Network says that assets increased by 5 percent in 2011 to $16.4 billion, thanks partly to small consumers getting fed up with the fees of large bankers. The trade group drove last fall's "Bank Transfer Day" that lured millions from customers who often can't assemble a large enough relationship with a commercial bank to avoid fees. Minnesota credit unions experienced their biggest membership increase since 2008. Bankers long have bemoaned credit unions because the nonprofit financial institutions don't pay corporate income taxes.

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