From Solving Back Pain to Hitting 100 MPG
By Mike Signer | February 17, 2011
The Story of David Brown
There aren’t too many people who can say this sentence: “I’m a chiropractor and a politician, and now I’m the communications director for Edison2.” Edison2 is a car company based in Lynchburg that recently received a $5 million award for inventing a car that gets 100 miles to the gallon. David Brown, who said the above sentence, is the former mayor of Charlottesville. The new direction in his life parallels changes in Virginia’s innovation-driven economy.
David and I recently sat down at the D.C. Auto Show, where Edison2’s gleaming, prize-winning car was on display. You can watch David share his story via video here. (We apologize for the poor audio quality—there was a lot of background noise at the Auto Show, but David’s enthusiasm comes through loud and clear).
David grew up in rural Virginia on the eastern shore. He moved to Charlottesville to attend the University of Virginia. After graduating, he planned on law school, but then, in his words, “came to my senses.” After college, he was interested in health, running, and yoga; his brother was seeing a chiropractor, and all of sudden, that path “made sense to me.”
David and his wife Jeanne have been married for 31 years. They moved to Oregon so he could attend chiropractic school. But Charlottesville—also known as “The Hook”—already had its hooks in him. They moved back in 1980 and he opened up a practice. Pretty soon after that he was involved in politics. He first became involved with the pro-nuclear freeze Citizens Party, attending the 1984 Democratic Convention. “When I got there, I just felt at home.” David became a Democratic precinct chair in Charlottesville, and later, chair of the local Democratic Party.
In addition to building his practice, he stayed active in other communities. He became president of a national chiropractic organization but, he says, “Maybe the coolest thing I did was I ran a soccer program for public housing kids.” His leadership interests gradually moved him onto the City Council, where his fellow councilors immediately appointed him Mayor. “For a long time I felt like my role was to help talented people on City Council,” he told me. “At some point I realized I wanted to be on city council too.
His most challenging moment as mayor came quickly, when a controversy erupted over a new school superintendent that divided the community along racial lines. Brown had to work hard to resolve the conflict and soothe hurt feelings. “It was very difficult year, very divisive, and it was just very hard,” he remembers.
He explains that Charlottesville, like many of Virginia’s localities, has demographic differences that make public education a particularly crucial issue: “Charlottesville has a school system which has a lot of challenges. Over half our kids are on free and reduced lunch, a lot of our kids come out of poverty. But at the same time we’re a university town so we have a lot of kids who come from a lot of affluence, education, community resources.” He explained that the superintendent controversy raised a challenge: “to make sure that people knew that things were going to change, that they could have kids at the public school system.” In the end, he said, the solution was simple: “We hired a fabulous new superintendent.”
The seeds of David’s new career lay in his interest in sustainable development and mixed-use projects. As mayor, he came to know Oliver Kuttner, who had developed projects David loved in Charlottesville and Lynchburg. David remembers that reporters would call him to ask what he thought of the projects. “I told them the truth,” he said. “The best properties in the last five years had been Oliver’s.”
Oliver called David out of the blue one day. “I’m doing a really interesting project in Lynchburg,” he told David. “So I jumped in the car one day and drove to Lynchburg,” David says, “which is an hour and 10 minutes away and I was just… I got excited. I felt like I saw right off that what he was doing was different, had potential to really change transportation.”
Oliver had launched a company with the sole purpose of inventing a car that could compete and win the Progressive Automotive Company’s X Prize—a 30-month competition for U.S. companies to design a 100+ MPG car, with multimillion dollar prizes awarded cars who satisfy a number of criteria. For Edison2, the car needed a 200-mile range—a daunting but exciting engineering challenge.
One thing led to another. David started working for Oliver part-time helping with logistics, presentations, and serving as the point of contact. When the car won the X Prize, “That just went crazy.”
In the competition Edison2 won, the cars needed to be able to go 200 miles. Engineering-wise, this means that it made more sense for Edison2’s car to be gasoline-powered, rather than electric or hybrid. Because the car’s primary assets were low drag and light weight, a heavy battery load would have decreased its efficiency.
Aside from the cars themselves, what David finds most thrilling about Edison2 is the “incredible group of people” at Edison2. “It’s a group of guys with very deep levels of experience at auto racing.” Altogether the team members have amassed 17 victories at Le Mans, Sebring and Daytona.
Edison2 has even brought in famous international racers, like the Italian race car driver Emanuelle Pirro, a five-time Le Mans 24 Hour winner, who has become an Edison2 enthusiast and driver. Pirro visited Lynchburg and became so excited about the project declined reimbursement for his travel expenses. What’s it like hanging out with Pirro? “He’s engaging, very smart, very cool guy,” David said. “He’s great fun to be around.”
David recalled being with the Edison2 team at the award ceremony as “a moment of great pride.” But he got the most out of cheering on Edison2’s engineering and driving teams. “The guys in the shop were working 15 hours a week, 7 days a week for a year,” he remembered. “To me, it was just gratifying to see this group of people, extremely talented, focused on this project for this length of time, see the rewards of all their work.”
David’s experience with Edison2 also sheds light on another important facet of Virginia’s diversity: the manufacturing base still present in a city like Lynchburg. In our interview, David went out of his way to point out that, while most of Edison2 team lived in Charlottesville, the company needed to be stationed in Lynchburg, an hour away. Why? “The simple fact is this project could not have been done in Charlottesville,” David explained, because “Charlottesville does not have a manufacturing base of any real significance. Lynchburg did.”
He went on: “Lynchburg had a shoe industry, and a textile industry. There are numerous well-developed machine shops, machine suppliers, skilled machinists as a legacy of that. . . . In Charlottesville we might design a part and get it in a week,” he explained. “In Lynchburg, we’d design it and get it the next day. And that’s important when you’re innovating.”
Lynchburg’s old-school advantages were essential for this competitive, time-sensitive new company. “The Lynchburgs of the world, the Danvilles, the places that have this type of machine tool industry,” David said. “It’s critical that our country not lose that. You can’t be creative without the ability to make, to make quickly and at high quality.”
David hasn’t given up on chiropractic. He’s been at work for several years on a book about back pain. “It’s not a mystery,” he explained. “If everyone sat up straight, sat up without slumping, chiropractors would be out of business.”
But his new career is beckoning more strongly. His major goal now is helping this proud innovative Virginia company win more prizes and, ultimately, to bring the car to the consumer market.
Find out more about Edison2 at this link.