Off The Grid
Henk Rogers, Hawaii Business’ CEO of the year, does not follow conventions – he ignores or breaks them.
Henk Rogers is an unusual choice for Hawaii Business magazine’s CEO of the Year.
Past CEOs of the Year have led some of the state’s largest companies; Rogers’ computer game empire is composed of a handful of publishing companies, copyright and trademark holding companies, and software development companies that collectively employ fewer than 100 people.
Three of the past four honorees – Mark Dunkerley, Eric Yeaman and John Dean – brought their companies back from bankruptcy or financial ruin, while preserving them as uniquely Hawaiian institutions. Rogers made his fortune on intellectual property developed elsewhere, and he could operate his business from anywhere in the world. (Just the kind of business, he would tell you, that Hawaii should be trying to attract.)
Yes, Henk Rogers is definitely different from previous CEOs of the Year, but it’s those differences that make him so influential, and they’re why we believe his influence will last a long time.
He’s heavily invested in Hawaii’s future. Taking over from former governor George Ariyoshi as chairman of Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems (PISCES) made him the chief advocate for space science in the state. He helped fund, design and build the Mars Habitat on Mauna Loa.
Rogers is also a linchpin in Hawaii’s nascent innovation economy. Through his business accelerator, Blue Startups, he has invested in and nurtured more than 40 young companies, providing a stepping-stone for local entrepreneurs and attracting talent from around the world.
Most important, by creating and funding Blue Planet Foundation, which is dedicated to ending the use of carbon-based fuels, Rogers is helping chart the future of energy in Hawaii and the world. The clearest sign of that influence was this year’s announcement by Gov. David Ige and members of the Legislature of the state’s new goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2045, one of the foundation’s signature initiatives.
“(While attending UH) I did all kinds of jobs. I drove for Charley’s Taxi and UPS. I cleaned grease traps in restaurants. Anything I could do at night, so I could go to school in the daytime.”
— Henk Rogers
Clearly, Rogers is a new kind of businessman, and a new kind of CEO of the Year. In fact, strictly speaking, he’s barely a CEO at all, having given much of the control of his gaming empire to his daughter, Maya Rogers, who also co-founded Blue Startups, which she runs with Chenoa Farnsworth. Similarly, Blue Planet Foundation is run by Jeff Mikulina, an indefatigable advocate for renewable energy. But each enterprise remains animated by his boundless enthusiasm and his quirky vision for the future. And it’s Rogers’ vision and his ongoing investment in Hawaii’s future that we choose to honor.
Coincidentally, before we selected him CEO of the Year, Rogers invited Hawaii Business to Puuwaawaa Ranch, his home on the Big Island, to tour his high-tech energy lab. We also sat around the kitchen table and talked about Rogers’ fascinating past, and his vision for the future.
Coming to the Islands
Henk Rogers isn’t from Hawaii. He was born, in 1953, to Dutch/Indonesian parents, and spent the first 11 years of his life in Holland. In 1964, his family moved to New York City, where he attended the prestigious Stuyvesant High School. While Rogers may not be local, his connection to Hawaii goes back four decades. In 1974, his family moved to Japan, stopping in Honolulu for a layover that proved fateful.
“It was only supposed to be for a couple of weeks,” Rogers says, “but it turned into a year. By the time the family was moving on to Japan, I was going to UH.”
Although he had previously decided he wasn’t going to attend college, he couldn’t resist the computers at UH Manoa, which was a hotbed of computer engineering and the home of ALOHAnet and its founder, Norman Abramson.
Maybe another part of Rogers’ decision to stay in Hawaii had to do with his difficult relationship with his father, a peripatetic and opinionated gem dealer who was often at odds with his son.
“When I was going to UH, I had broken away from my dad,” Rogers says. “I told him, ‘I don’t need your money to go to school. I’ll pay for it myself.’ So I worked my way through school. I did all kinds of jobs. I drove for Charley’s Taxi and UPS. I cleaned grease traps in restaurants. Anything I could do at night, so I could go to school in the daytime.”
But, like his father, Rogers has his own, idiosyncratic ways of doing things, and his college career offers a foretaste of his unusual path to business success.
“Now, what just happened was he made me a publisher for Nintendo. And there were witnesses in the room, so nobody at Nintendo was going to go against him, because this guy is like Stalin.”
— Henk Rogers
“When you’re paying for your own school,” he says, “you really only want to study what you’re interested in. And I wasn’t interested in core requirements. At the end of three years, they called me into the dean’s office and said, ‘You haven’t taken any of your core requirements. Now, you’re looking at a year of just core requirements if you expect to graduate.’ And my answer to that was, ‘I guess I don’t expect to graduate.’ That’s because I didn’t ever expect to get a job where I was going to need a diploma.”
His ambivalence about education came naturally.
“My dad had an attitude problem. He thought it was stupid to go to college. If you wanted to know something, just read the damned book. If you wanted to talk to somebody, go talk to them.”
Similarly, the younger Rogers suspects most of the information you learn in school eventually becomes irrelevant. Even so, he acknowledges there’s more to college than the classes you attend or the books you read. All his children went to college.
For his part, though, Rogers never finished his degree. “After three years at UH,” he says, “I chased a girl to Japan.”
That girl, Akemi, is still his wife, 40 years later.
Ultimately, Rogers would spend 18 years in Japan. For the first six, he worked with his father in the gem trade.
“It was terrible,” he says. “It was like he thought he knew everything and I knew nothing. But he didn’t, really.”
In fact, while his father may have been a gifted salesman, Rogers says, he was a terrible businessman.
“He never even did basic things, like pay taxes or keep inventory. … I did learn how to be a good salesman from him. But I also learned not to do some of the things the way he did. For example, I’ve always kept my business in a rational structure, with people in place who know everything about the business. So, if I go away, the business is still there when I come back. That’s something he could never do. As soon as he left, his business was always crumbling, because it was all just in his head.”
When personal computers came to Japan in the early 1980s, Rogers struck out on his own. He was inspired, in part, by his UH days, where, in addition to his love of computers, he had been an avid Dungeons & Dragons player. The trick – now obvious, but not so much back then – was to meld these two enthusiasms, computers and role-playing games.
“The answer to whether you should sell your company is Yes, and the time is now!”
— Bob Lloyd,Former pro basketball player and now a board member of Blue Planet Foundation, giving advice about Tetris to Rogers more than a decade ago
“I figured out that Japan was about two years behind the United States, in terms of what games were popular,” he says. “And I saw there were no role-playing games there. I said, ‘I’ll make one of those.’ So, I went from like zero game-making experience – maybe I had done some college homework assignments – to making the first role-playing game in Japan.
“That was in the days when the machines only had 64 K of memory. I published that first game on cassette tape, and it took like 20 minutes to load, at 300 baud. In the middle of development, they came out with 5 ¾-inch floppy disks, and the operating system for the floppy disks alone took 10 K, so I had to find 10 K in the game that I could remove. Monster graphics took 10 K, so I put all the monster graphics on a floppy disk. Every time you met a monster, the game had to access the floppy disk to download the graphics, because there was no room in the memory. It was maddening.”
Despite these technical issues, the game, The Black Onyx, became the No. 1 computer game in Japan in 1984, and Rogers created a publishing company to market it. He called it Bullet-Proof Software.
Bullet-Proof Software, like its first product, was a hit. It became one of the largest game publishers in Japan, at its peak employing 120 people in Yokohama, Rogers says. After writing a couple more games, he traveled the world, looking for games to publish. That led him to Tetris.
“I found dozens and dozens of games to bring to Japan,” he says. “Tetris was the third game that I published in Japan, and it took on a whole life of it’s own. When I got interested in that game, I wasn’t satisfied with just publishing on the platforms that I had been publishing on – all the personal computers and the 8-bit Nintendo machine. Gameboy had just come out, and I said to myself, ‘This is the perfect platform for Tetris.’ Tetris is perfect for Gameboy, and Gameboy is perfect for Tetris. It goes both ways.”
Rogers already had a Nintendo connection. He had a side business selling joysticks to game makers, and Nintendo was his agent in the U.S. “I was negotiating with the president of Nintendo America on a monthly basis,” he says. Still, he knew it wouldn’t be easy to strike a deal.
Nintendo’s president, Hiroshi Yamauchi, was a famously hard-nosed businessman. The five largest game publishers in Japan, including Bullet-Proof Software, wanted to write games for Nintendo, but he was adamantly against it. According to Yamauchi, only the big arcade game publishers were sophisticated enough to work with Nintendo. And when Yamauchi said ‘No,’ it was law, Rogers says.
“But my wife told me she had read in a magazine that Yamauchi plays this Japanese board game called ‘Go.’ Well, Go was the reason my dad moved to Japan, and I played Go myself. As a publisher, I was already publishing a Go program in Japan.”
“I just need money”
Go became the key to Rogers’ first major deal.
“It’s Tuesday. I send Mr. Yamauchi a fax. ‘Mr. Yamauchi,’ I write, ‘I can make a Go game for your Nintendo machine. I’m leaving for the States on Saturday. I would like to see you before I go.’ That was my whole message to him. I didn’t tell him I lived in Japan and had a publishing company and all that. I just said those words. None of it was a lie, though, because I was leaving that Saturday for the States. Anyway, on Wednesday, I get a fax back that says, ‘Mr. Yamauchi will see you tomorrow.’ This would be my first meeting without an interpreter. My interpreter, I had realized, wasn’t saying what I was saying. And, the only thing worse that not having the words myself would be someone else saying something different from what I wanted to say.
“So, I’m there with Mr. Yamauchi, and it’s this big room with four tables and couches on both sides. We’re sitting in the middle of the room, with him across from me, and his first words to me were, ‘I can’t give you any programmers.’ I said, ‘I don’t need programmers. I have programmers; I just need money.’ And he said, ‘How much money?’ And I thought of the biggest number I could think of, and I said, ‘$300,000.’ And he reached across the table and shook my hand. That was it.”
That deal was only possible because of Rogers’ chutzpah and a piece of inside knowledge. The challenge in producing a Go game for Nintendo was the machine’s modest 64 K memory. But Rogers knew his game had been written for the Commodore 64, and that this computer shared the same 6502 CPU with Nintendo. Making the game work on the Nintendo machine was mostly about cosmetics and simple technical issues, like making the joystick work.
“Nine months later,” Rogers says, “I’m back in the room with Mr. Yamauchi. He’s like a sixth-degree black belt in Go. He’s a serious Go player. That’s, like, past serious. I’m a third-degree black belt, which is still not bad, but it’s not Yamauchi territory. And he wants to play against the computer. He’s got the little joystick in his hand. And I can tell, by the fact that he’s not able to use the cursor, for example, that he’s never touched the Nintendo machine before. Finally, in exasperation, he hands it over to his underling standing next to him and says, ‘I want to go there. I want to go there. I want to go there,’ and he plays a game of Go. At the end, he beats the machine and says, ‘It’s not strong enough for Nintendo.’ And I said, ‘Mr. Yamauchi, you will never see a stronger algorithm for your Nintendo machine than this. It’s just an 8-bit computer.’ But he didn’t understand what the hell that meant. ‘It’s still not strong enough for Nintendo,’ he said. So, I did some quick thinking and said, ‘Well, it’s strong enough for my company. Let me publish it.’ And he asked, ‘What about my money?’ That was the $300,000. And I said, ‘I’ll pay you a dollar for every unit I sell until I pay you back.’ ‘Deal,’ he said.
“Now, what just happened was he made me a publisher for Nintendo. And there were witnesses in the room, so nobody at Nintendo was going to go against him, because this guy is like Stalin. So, that was my first game for Nintendo. We actually only sold about 150,000 copies, so he only got about half his money back. But that was fine. And the product was great, I’ve got to say. A lot of kids learned how to play Go as a result.”
“Lying on my back in the ambulance, my first thought was, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. I haven’t spent any of the money yet.’ I thought it was so ridiculous that I had worked that hard and been that clever, and then I was going to die.”
— Henk Rogers
Perhaps more to the point, Go helped Rogers develop a personal relationship with the Nintendo tycoon. “After that, I always made my appointments on a day when Mr. Yamauchi was free for the afternoon. I would have my meeting; then, we would play Go afterward.” It was likely this relationship that would later allow him to persuade Yamauchi to include Tetris on the new Gameboy.
The Tetris Saga
It was Tetris, of course, that would become the base of Rogers’ fortune. How he acquired the game is an often-told tale: An unannounced trip to the old Soviet Union, where a programmer named Alexey Pajitnov had invented the game, but, because he worked for the government, received no royalties. Instead, Rogers conducted a marathon negotiation with the Russian government apparatchiks who controlled the rights. Finally, he secured the international publishing rights to Tetris. He also befriended Pajitnov, and they later became partners and shared royalties. This is the story most people know about Henk Rogers. But it doesn’t end there. The sequel, he says, came years later, long after Rogers had left Japan.
“By that time,” he says, “I had cornered all the rights to Tetris. In fact, I cornered those rights in 1996, and I had a partnership with the remnants of the Soviet Ministry of Hardware and Software, called Elorg. If they sound like the Evil Empire in a James Bond movie, that’s because they were. Alexey always calls them bandits, because they took money for basically doing nothing.”
In fact, despite selling the rights to Rogers in 1995, Nintendo methodically went around the world, securing the trademark and copyright to Tetris in more than 60 countries.
“This was going to be a huge battle,” Rogers says. “I was going to have to go to each country and prove they didn’t have the rights, that Alexey had the rights. That would have cost way more money than I had at the time. In fact, it would probably have cost more money than I have now. So, I told Alexey, ‘We’ve got to make a deal with these guys.’ So, we did. I was going to give them 20 percent, and they were going to give me 20 percent, so we split the difference.”
After a year of arguing, they split the Tetris Company 50/50. But that wasn’t the end of Rogers’ wily negotiations.
“I said, ‘You guys don’t know anything about running a game business, so I want 25 percent to be the agent and brand manager. This was off the top, before we divided the money up. So, we did that for, I guess, seven years, until 2002. A lot of things happened in 2002. I had been trying to find a licensee for Tetris for mobile phones. I found one in Japan, and they paid me a seven-figure advance for the rights for Tetris for mobile phones. I tried to find someone in the U.S. to give me that kind of deal, but the best deal I could come up with was a five-figure advance.”
To Rogers, that meant the U.S. market didn’t yet understand the potential for mobile phone games. That made it an opportunity. By then, he had left Japan and was living in San Francisco, trying unsuccessfully to capitalize on the Internet boom. Instead, he ended up jumping onto the mobile phone wave, a gambit that would bring him back to Hawaii.
“It was because of Act 221,” he says. “My attorney said, ‘Dude, you’ve got to come back to Hawaii. With this Act 221, for every dollar you invest you get a free dollar from somebody who’s just looking for tax credits.’ So, I came back to Hawaii thinking I was going to raise money to do this business.”
The company opened for business on April Fools’ Day, 2002. And, after long negotiations with Sprint, which was the first phone company to put games on its mobile phones, Blue Lava Wireless, a company Rogers founded to manage mobile games, became one of only eight companies whose games were published through their phones. In fact, the whole process went almost too smoothly. By Christmas, Rogers was rethinking his plans.
“At the end of the year, when everyone figured out their tax exposure, that’s when all the 221 money started flowing like crazy. But my wife and I looked at the money we needed to get to profitability, and we decided it wasn’t that much. So, we decided we wouldn’t raise any capital; we just borrowed money from various places, and that helped us reach the point where we were making more money than we were spending.”
Thus began the second Tetris boom, this one mobile.
Selling the Company
With his previous companies, Rogers always held onto control. This time, he says, “I wanted to sell my company and make a lot of money.”
So he asked his friend, Minoru Arakawa, the former president of Nintendo of America, if he thought it was time to sell Blue Lava Wireless. Arakawa said he didn’t know, but he knew someone who would. That was Bob Lloyd, former pro basketball player and then CEO of game companies like Mindscape and Data East. (He now serves on the boards of several of Rogers’ companies.) Rogers put the same question to Lloyd, “Should I sell Blue Lava Wireless? And, if I should, when?”
“Bob came back a month later and said, ‘The answer to whether you should sell your company is yes, and the time is now!’ ”
By that time, the 50/50 deal with the Russians was coming apart. The Russians wanted to slash Rogers’ 25 percent cut as sole agent for Tetris, and he was in court, challenging whether they had any rights to Tetris at all.
“We were ready for a three-year legal battle,” Rogers says. “But Bob Lloyd said, ‘You know what? At the end of three years, you may end up being right; but your opportunity to sell your company will have passed. So, the answer is, settle now.’ … So, I went into settle mode and negotiated with the Russians. I ended up buying the ministry, because that was the cleanest way of doing it. If I bought the ministry, they would have no recourse later. They would have no rights to Tetris at all. So, I’m now the proud owner of Elorg.”
As surprising as that transaction seems in print, Rogers says, it was even more surreal in person. In part, this was because his Russian counterpart had to keep the deal secret so the Russian Mafia wouldn’t know he was about to become very rich. But it was also because Rogers’ mobile phone rights for Tetris were set to expire on Dec. 31, 2005. If he wanted to sell those rights, he had to make a deal before then.
“This is a scene out of a movie,” Rogers says. “I had to make that deal before Dec. 31, and I did. We were finally down to the point where I had gotten the money together to buy them out, but we had to sign this deal somewhere that was a nontax country. The problem was, the Russians couldn’t go too many places on short notice; it takes time. The only tax haven that would take Russians on short notice was Panama. So, we’re in Panama, basically sitting around a table, waiting for the money to be deposited in their account. They’ve signed the papers already, but they’re waiting for the money before they hand them to me. It was that kind of thing. Once the money was in the bank, we shook hands and were good friends at that point.”
Finally, Rogers and Pajitnov owned Tetris outright. It turned out to be the perfect time to sell, Rogers says.
“There was another company in the mobile phone game space – a company called Jamdat – that had just gone public, so they had a ton of cash and their company valuation was way up there. So, Bob Lloyd goes into overdrive and we negotiated with the top three companies in that field to sell Tetris to them. Jamdat is the one that bit the biggest and the hardest. That’s when I got out.”
So, what is a blockbuster mobile phone game worth?
“Jamdat had made $67 million in cash when they went public. That’s how much cash we got out of the deal. In addition, they gave us 4 million shares of Jamdat stock, at $16 a share. That’s another $64 million. There was a whole earn-out thing going on, too, where there were all these milestones, and little by little I would be able to sell the stock. But what, in fact, happened was that the big gaming company Electronic Arts bought Jamdat a year later, and all of this stock was cashed out at $27 a share.
Here’s the kicker: Rogers didn’t actually sell the rights to Tetris.
“Henk leaves the majority of operations to us. His role here is really to inspire and mentor.”
— Chenoa Farnsworth, Managing director, Blue Startups
“What I actually sold Jamdat (in 2005) was a 15-year license to the game. This is the goofy thing. I remembered my dad telling me about a deal in the gem business where some big department store bought somebody’s gem business, and part of the deal was that they had to keep buying gems from him. I thought of that deal when we were negotiating and said, ‘OK, the way we’re going to do this deal is I’m going to give you a 15-year license to Tetris, and you’re going to continue to pay me royalties while you own this company. So, they don’t actually own the rights; I get the rights back in five years so I can sell them again.”
Man with a Mission
That was in 2005. When the ink dried on the contract, Henk Rogers became one of the wealthiest people in Hawaii. “I had made a deal with my wife,” he says. “If I put $10 million in the bank, I wouldn’t have to work anymore. Well, I kind of killed that one.”
That left a simple question: What next?
The answer came to Rogers, less than three months later, on the Waialae Country Club golf course when he was age 53. Unfortunately, it took the form of a massive heart attack, a “100 percent blockage of the ‘widow-maker,’ the artery that supplies blood to the heart.”
“Lying on my back in the ambulance,” he says, “my first thought was, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. I haven’t spent any of the money yet.’ I thought it was so ridiculous I had worked that hard and been that clever, and then I was going to die. So, I said to myself, ‘No, I’m not going to die. I still have stuff to do.’ And obviously I survived. I had an angioplasty, so I have two stents, but I walked out of that hospital four days later with just two Band-Aids.”
All in all, it was a fateful year for Rogers.
“That was the year I sold my company, had a heart attack and, ultimately, found my mission in life. At that point, I asked myself, ‘What do I mean by stuff to do?’ My kids were all adults; they didn’t really need me anymore. I had made enough money for my wife to live the rest of her life; so she didn’t need me anymore. Of course, that’s an over-simplification, but, I worked it backward and asked myself, ‘What’s going to piss me off if I don’t do anything about it by the end of my life?’ And I came up with my missions in life.
“The first mission came to me when I was still in the hospital. I was reading the back of the newspaper and there was an article that said something like, ‘Oh, by the way, we’re going to kill all the coral in the world by the end of the century.’ And I thought, ‘All the coral in the world by the end of the century? Do you guys even know what that means?’ That’s like a quarter of all life in the ocean. It would be like the Permian Extinction. It would be huge!”
He decided his mission would be to end the world’s use of carbon-based fuel, the largest cause of global warming and climate change. He created the Blue Planet Foundation to help reach that goal. (His other three missions – ending war; making a copy of all life on Earth; and finding out how the universe ends, and doing something about it – will have to wait.)
Foundation for the Future
The work of the Blue Planet Foundation played an important role in Henk Rogers’ selection as Hawaii Business’ 2015 CEO of the Year. But, while the foundation seems like the leading advocate for renewable energy in the state today, in its early days, it struggled to find a way forward. There were negotiations with Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney to hold a big concert on Magic Island, but then Al Gore held his big Live Earth concert, and holding a concert in Hawaii no longer seemed necessary. The foundation held a big, international conference, the Blue Planet Summit, at Ko Olina, which was well attended – Robert Kennedy Jr. and Jim Woolsey, the former director of the CIA came – but, as with most conferences, not much concrete happened.
It was really only after they hired Jeff Mikulina, who ran the Sierra Club in Hawaii, that the foundation found its footing. “He’s been killing it ever since,” Rogers says.
A large part of the foundation’s influence stems from its dogged presence before the Public Utilities Commission, which regulates the electric industry in the state.
The former chair of the PUC, Mina Morita, who doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with the state’s renewable-energy advocates, like the foundation, says, “I think the difference between Blue Planet and other groups, like the Sierra Club, is that they have a paid staff and they have a marketing budget. Especially in PUC dockets, they’ve hired sophisticated consultants. They’re very active participants in PUC dockets, and that’s not cheap. So, their influence, again, has been putting up the resources to really drive and actively participate in these types of dockets.”
The foundation’s willingness to spend the money to bring in high-profile expert consultants is a major reason renewable-energy advocates in the state have been on such an equal footing with the deep-pocketed electric utilities. This added expertise has lent a gravitas to the PUC proceedings that has made Hawaii a focal point for the nation’s energy debates. Many of the PUC’s key rulings echo the testimony of Mikulina and the foundation’s expert witnesses.
Especially in the beginning, all of this was possible only because Rogers made a long-term financial commitment to the foundation. Now, Mikulina is quick to point out, the foundation’s financial resources are much more diversified, but Rogers is still a major funder and a constant inspiration for the staff.
Interestingly, Rogers takes a hands-off approach to the workings of the foundation. “It sounds cliche,” Mikulina says, “but Henk’s always been an idea guy. He really hasn’t ever been involved too closely in the day-to-day management. Of course, he’s involved in the broad, strategic direction that the board participates in. But, it’s really the vision setting that has largely been Henk.”
“A couple steps ahead”
Rogers being Rogers, though, he’s a constant presence (his office is on the same floor as the foundation) and he frequently drops in and makes what sometimes seem like crazy suggestions. The small hand fans that he suggested the foundation hand out at the Sony Open one year are still surprisingly popular. And his idea to get kids to draw pictures of how they saw their energy future, then put those in a book to distribute to the Legislature, seemed quixotic, but it was persuasive.
“The legislators loved it,” Mikulina says. “It was just a really great tactic.”
But Rogers’ main role has always been to be the foundation’s dreamer. For example, he has created anxiety among the staff by proposing to extend the foundation’s mission to other islands in the Pacific.
“Henk’s always a couple steps ahead,” Mikulina says. “Henk always has the ‘what’ and the ‘why’; sometimes, we have to bridge the gap and figure out the ‘how.’ He’s definitely not burdened by the realities of how politics move; but I appreciate that. We certainly need people like that, and I think his success has allowed him to occupy that role.”
Blue Planet Foundation has been particularly effective at the state Legislature. As state Sen. Mike Gabbard puts it, “After seven years of being the chair of the energy and environment committee, my feeling is that Blue Planet’s effect on renewable energy has been a big part of the discussion in Hawaii, and has had a very positive influence.”
Nowhere was this influence more profound than with the state’s commitment, this year, to 100 percent renewables by 2045.
“I think you can credit Blue Planet for the 100 percent renewables policy,” says Hermina Morita, maybe a little grudgingly. And Ted Peck, the state energy director under Gov. Linda Lingle, agrees. “Blue Planet was a big player in the 100 percent RPS (renewable portfolio standards),” he says. “They built up a coalition and took the lead in it.”
“They were major partners,” Gabbard adds. “Leading up to the session, for example, there was some talk of moving the date from 2045 to 2050, and they were a big help in talking to my colleagues and getting them to move it back to 2045.”
Why does Rogers think 100 percent renewable is so important for Hawaii? “It affects all the decisions that get made between now and 2045, or even after, regarding the production of electricity. In other words, nobody is going to build any infrastructure that’s going to last past 2045. That means no more oil-, or coal-, or gas-fired power plants. That’s because each time you build something like that, you’re basically stuck with it until it’s amortized, as long as it’s in working condition.”
Opposes Liquefied Natural Gas
This is why Blue Planet Foundation was so adamantly against Hawaiian Electric’s plan to convert its power plants to LNG. It might have been cheaper power than oil and coal, but it would have committed Hawaii to fossil fuel for another generation. And that’s exactly why Rogers created the foundation: to end the use of fossil fuel.
The foundation was also a key advocate for community renewables, the other major energy bill passed by the 2015 Legislature.
“It was through them,” Gabbard says, “that I first heard of that little town, Rifle, Colorado. That’s the one where they put up about 3,500 PV panels, and they’re owned by Jimmy’s Pizza, a Montessori school and a whole bunch of families. Conceptually, as a policymaker, I’m thinking, ‘That’s so cool.’ ”
That’s what the community renewables bill offers to Hawaii’s condo-owners and renters. “Here you are,” Gabbard says, “you’ve got all these homeowners tapping into net energy metering and getting their $17-a-month electric bills, and all the renters are saying, ‘Well, isn’t that nice. What about me?’ And, again, Blue Planet was one of the chief groups in there, talking to my colleagues, getting the email blasts out and making sure people showed up at the hearings to testify.”
Rogers takes much the same approach at Blue Startups as at Blue Planet Foundation. He’s engaged, but not at the nuts-and-bolts level.
“Henk leaves the majority of operations to us,” says Chenoa Farnsworth, who shares day-to-day management of the program with Maya Rogers. “His role here is really to inspire and mentor. And he really does. With each cohort, he gets involved with a team, mentoring them, offering suggestions, etc.”
Blue Startups’ key contribution, she says, is as a stepping-stone for startups looking for funding. “We’ve had a big impact. These entrepreneurs now have a goal to shoot for. Before, there really was nowhere for a young entrepreneur to go. You had to get pretty far down the road to apply to the Hawaii Angels.”
Forty companies and counting have gotten seed capital and a boost. This year, TechCrunch rated Blue Startups as one of the 20 best accelerators in the country. Now, it’s one star in the growing constellation of accelerators and incubators of Hawaii’s innovation economy.
Farnsworth also sees Rogers as uniquely qualified to help Hawaii become the East-West bridge it has long aspired to be.
“Every organization has to have a visionary,” she says. “Henk has always had a vision of Hawaii becoming that bridge between East and West. Part of his moving Tetris to Hawaii was to prove that point.”
She adds a generational element to this, pointing out that Maya, who now runs the Tetris Company and Blue Startups, was born and raised in Japan.
Finally, there’s Henk Rogers’ interest in space exploration. That goes far beyond his work with PISCES and the Mars Habitat. He’s convinced Hawaii is the ideal place for space tourism, optimally located near the equator and close to a potential market of billions of people in Asia.
“We could send Chinese or Japanese or whoever into space and bring them back safely,” Rogers says. “That’s a good reason for Hawaii to invest in space.”
Back on the Ranch
Despite his great wealth and travel bug (he spent part of 2015 at Burning Man, and another part visiting his friend, the prime minister of Bhutan), Henk Rogers isn’t done building businesses in Hawaii. That became evident when he took us to his energy lab. This modernist, 8,500-square-foot, wedge-shaped building is a glimpse into energy’s future.
“The lab has 360 photovoltaic panels on the roof,” Rogers says. “That gives us about 85 kilowatts of peak power. From this roof, we power the entire ranch.” The lab also contains a full machine shop, an electrical shop, a power control room, and a constantly changing retinue of models and experiments.
“If I start making hundreds of millions of dollars doing (battery storage), all of a sudden, maybe people will copy me and change will happen.”
— Henk Rogers
Just outside the main entrance to the lab, a big commercial electrolyzer converts plain water into its constituent elements, oxygen and hydrogen gas. The hydrogen is stored in old propane tanks, and can be used to run forklifts, power tools, and other internal-combustion engines. Rogers likes to demonstrate the usefulness of hydrogen by firing up a converted barbecue grill, or brandishing a chainsaw with its carburetor removed. All of them run fine on hydrogen instead of gasoline, Rogers says. But the primary function for the gas is to feed the lab’s high-tech fuel cells.
“We can generate about 12 kilos of hydrogen a day,” Rogers says. “A kilo of hydrogen is the equivalent of about a gallon of gasoline, and all of this is made out of excess solar energy that we would otherwise just be throwing away.”
He gestures to a rack of repurposed propane tanks, like the kind you see in a hospital. “We have storage for 25 kilos of hydrogen at the ranch,” he says. “That’s enough power to last us about four days, if we were in total darkness. Of course, if we have four days of total darkness, then we have major problems.”
But the main reason Rogers invited us to Puuwaawaa Ranch was to show us the centerpiece of the ranch’s power system, its new lithium-iron-phosphate batteries. These high-test batteries, designed by Sony Electronics, allowed Rogers to take the ranch completely off the grid. (The same system took his Tantalus home off-grid, too.) That was the real purpose for building the energy lab.
“I really wanted to separate the fact from the fiction of being off grid,” Rogers says. “You keep on hearing that it’s
so hard, and people ask, ‘How can we do all this by 2045?’ and things like that. But when you actually look at it, it isn’t that hard. It’s a question of doing it. And what you’re building is infrastructure instead of importing oil.”
Until now, the work at the lab has been conducted under the rubric “Blue Planet Energy Systems Research” and run by Rogers’ friend and business partner Vincent Paul Ponthieux. But the commercial prospects for the Sony batteries proved too tempting, even for someone as wealthy as Rogers, and they’ve now gone beyond the research stage. Incorporating under the name Blue Planet Energy, they’ve begun selling and installing self-contained energy-storage systems for homes and businesses. The systems combine the Sony battery technology with technology developed in the energy lab, and Rogers says demand is huge.
That seems like a major undertaking for a man who thought he “wouldn’t have to work anymore.” But Rogers wonders if making money could be the point. “I thought to myself, ‘If I start making hundreds of millions of dollars doing this, all of a sudden, maybe people will copy me and change will happen.’ That’s when I started thinking that maybe I needed to be in the business.” The profits, he says, could be thrown back into the foundation so change would come faster.
This restless vision both charms and sometimes frustrates the people who work for Rogers. But he believes it takes outlandish dreams to achieve big things.
“If I knew then what I know now about computer games,” he says, “I would never had thought I could make a role-playing game in nine months, in a language that I didn’t speak, read, or write, with just 64 K of memory. That seems like a ridiculous undertaking. And it is a ridiculous undertaking, looking back on it now. But I did it.
“And I really feel that ending the use of carbon-based fuel is a similar thing. If I really knew how big of a thing I was taking on, I would probably say, ‘That’s an impossible thing to do.’ But I don’t know that, and therefore it’s not impossible. And, because I believe it’s not impossible, it is not impossible. Sometime in the future, someone will probably say, ‘Wow! You guys did a gargantuan job!’ But you know what? That’s the job.”