LOS ANGELES -- Motivo Engineering, which sits in a nondescript light-industrial tract in the shadow of the U.S. headquarters of Toyota and Honda in Torrance, Calif., is typical of the tiny startups that have emerged from the rubble of the recession.
Founded in 2010, Motivo consists of a band of castoffs from Tustin, Calif., engineering services firm MillenWorks after it was bought out by supplier giant Textron Inc.
Motivo President Nate Schroeder, 39, has positioned the 18-person company to focus on accelerated product development and rapid prototyping with a mechanical and electrical engineering bent.
At MillenWorks, Schroeder oversaw the construction of the first batch of Coda Automotive prototypes for the U.S. market. At Motivo, for the upcoming Shanghai auto show, he is developing a modernized version of the tuk-tuk three-wheeled delivery truck that is omnipresent in Third World countries.
Meanwhile, Motivo's two-speed electric-vehicle transmission for medium-duty trucks is edging closer to the market. Licensing that technology will allow Motivo to smooth out the cyclical revenue dips inherent in engineering services work, Schroeder said.
Much of Motivo's work consists of developing hybrid-vehicle solutions. It operates like an engineering SWAT team, solving problems for larger companies in a hurry.
Schroeder's career includes a five-year stint at Chrysler in advanced manufacturing, as well as leading MillenWorks' effort to build a hybrid-powered light armored vehicle for the military.
Motivo CEO Praveen Penmetsa, 34, has a decade of prototyping and rapid product engineering experience, including a product-development stint at Yamaha.
There are no outside investors. Schroeder and Penmetsa have funded the startup; their names are on the bank loan.
Among the projects Motivo is working on is an autonomous golf cart system for large corporate campuses with geo-fenced driving routes and restrictions. The carts automatically tour the campus and return to base for recharging at night.
Motivo also constructed the 220-volt fast-charge box installed on Los Angeles-area tow trucks to give a quick boost to stranded electric vehicles -- 15 miles' range in 10 minutes -- "with a safe, secure interface that a tow-truck driver can understand," Schroeder said.
Then Motivo's projects get wacky. It is tuning the suspension of a tilting three-wheeled motor scooter -- think a cheaper version of the Carver from Holland -- for a Silicon Valley client. This is clearly still a work in progress, as a quick demo joyride by Schroeder ended up with him sprawled on the pavement after getting high-sided by the trike.
But Motivo isn't limited to automotive jobs. Working with Vorbeck Materials battery technology, Motivo created a flexible strap for backpacks or satchels that can recharge an iPhone 10 times over. There's an electric version of a 21-foot Cobalt boat under development, as well as prototype work for a next-generation first-class seat for passenger planes.
As a startup, Motivo sometimes has to take short cuts, Penmetsa admits. For static cold-weather testing, Motivo can't afford to ship a product to the Arctic Circle. Rather, it rents zero-degree refrigerated cargo containers. The office doesn't have a receptionist; the doorbell was broken.
Schroeder says Motivo has the vision to create an initial prototype from a client's germ of an idea and the mechanical know-how to build the next sequence of vehicles for testing purposes.
"We can make the first prototype," he said. "Then we can make the next five."