Cloud of controversy follows ‘Dr. Hydrogen’
Businessman regarded as expert, yet derided as kook
Roger Billings, the Gallatin, Mo., businessman who wants to convert Lawrence’s idled Farmland Industries plant into a hydrogen fuel-cell manufacturing facility, has a reputation that precedes him.
Several, in fact.
To some, Billings is viewed as a successful computer engineer and pioneer in the field of using hydrogen as a fuel source.
To others, he’s a preacher of polygamy with bogus academic credentials.
Billings has received a lot of press coverage over the last decade, in large part because of a $220 million patent infringement lawsuit he filed in 1991 against computer giant Novell Inc. He’s also been criticized for receiving a doctorate degree from a nonaccredited science academy that he co-founded in the mid-1980s in Independence, Mo.
During the course of the legal proceedings with Novell, several people made allegations, which Billings said were false, that he preached the divine necessity of polygamy at a church that he founded.
Billings contends that much of the publicity has been generated by Novell, which seeks to damage his reputation in case his lawsuit ever goes to trial.
“Novell has done a propaganda job on me,” Billings said.
All the talk has at least one Lawrence resident urging city, county and state officials to be cautious in their dealings with Billings and his efforts to buy the Farmland property.
Arly Allen invested in Billings’ then-publicly traded company, Billings Corp., in the early 1980s. His investment in the company, which was touting hydrogen fuel as the next big technological advancement, never returned a dime.
“My reaction to all of this is that you want to be very careful with Mr. Billings,” Allen said. “You want to get cash on the barrelhead. Don’t accept any promises, and make sure everything is tied down very well.
“My opinion is that there is a lot more flash and dash than there is substance in his background.”
Billings has big plans for the 467-acre fertilizer plant, which has sat vacant along Kansas Highway 10 on the eastern edge of Lawrence since 2001, when it fell victim to a downturn in the fertilizer industry.
He has signed a letter of intent to purchase the entire site and all of its remaining fertilizer equipment. His primary use for the plant would be to manufacture hydrogen fuel cells, an emerging technology that could allow vehicles to operate on clean-burning hydrogen rather than gasoline.
Billings also wants to do some fertilizer production at the site. He said he had identified a buyer for the fertilizer that the plant could still produce. He said having fertilizer production would be a boost to his hydrogen fuel-cell business because it would provide the company with cash while the fuel-cell technology became more widely adopted.
The multimillion dollar deal — exact financial terms haven’t been disclosed — is far from being completed. Both Billings and Farmland are in discussions with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the Environmental Protection Agency. Both groups would have to approve a plan for Billings to continue cleanup efforts at the site, which sustained environmental damage while it was used as a fertilizer facility from 1954 to 2001.
Farmland is selling the property as part of its bankruptcy proceeding, and the bankruptcy court must give final approval of the sale. As part of the bankruptcy process, the court allows other interested parties to bid on the property.
|Name: Roger BillingsAge: 56Family: Married to Tonja Billings for 31 years. Father of nine children.Occupation: President of Billings Energy Corp., an Independence, Mo.-based hydrogen energy research company; President of WideBand Corp., a Gallatin, Mo.-based computer networking company; and founder of Acellus Labs, an Independence-based developer of teaching software.Education: Co-founder of the International Academy of Science, a nonaccredited institution in Independence, Mo. Received his doctor of research degree from the institution as one of its first students. Also has a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Brigham Young University.In the news: Filed a patent infringement lawsuit against Novell Inc. in 1991. The case is still in court. Seeking more than $700 million in damages from the company.|
Billings said his project could produce 100 jobs for the area during the next two years and could grow to 700 to 800 jobs by the end of the decade, depending on how quickly Detroit automakers adopt fuel cell technology.
Billings has had successes in the business world before.
After receiving an engineering degree from Brigham Young University in the mid-1970s, Billings started Billings Computer Corp. in his hometown of Provo, Utah, in 1977.
It made him a player in the computer world. Billings is fond of telling a story about how he sat in Bill Gates’ apartment in the late 1970s and negotiated a deal for Gates to write software code for Billings new “microcomputers,” which were later used as the design for some of RadioShack’s earliest models.
“Billings Computer Corp. was pretty well known,” Billings said. “We sold thousands and thousands of machines all over the world.”
Billings also had success as the president of another company, Caldisk, which was involved in creating the doubled-sided floppy disk drive for computers.
Billings claims his success in the computer world goes far beyond those two companies. He contends that in the late 1970s he was the first person to come up with a specific method for connecting multiple computers together via a network.
That contention is the basis for his lingering lawsuit against Novell. Billings alleges that at a computer conference in 1982 he demonstrated his networking system to three people who later became the brain trust of Novell’s popular networking program. A year later, Provo-based Novell introduced its own version of the networking system, which it dubbed NetWare. Billings sued in 1991 seeking $220 million, a number based on a percentage of sales at the time. The dollar figure that he is seeking now is more than $700 million and growing with each sale.
Novell, which largely through the success of its networking systems has grown to a multibillion dollar company, has vigorously fought Billings’ allegations.
But Billings did receive a patent for the invention in 1987. Last year, the U.S. Patent Office reversed its decision and pulled the patent after researching it for more than 10 years at the request of Novell. Billings is appealing the decision to the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Gordon Stokes, a former teacher of Billings at BYU and a former consultant for his computer company, calls Billings’ lawsuit against Novell “phony.”
But Stokes, who is now the associate dean of computer science and engineering at Utah Valley State College, said Billings was a legitimate success at one time.
“When I worked for Roger for a couple of years, he really was one of the brightest and best that I had ever been around,” Stokes said. “He put together some great deals. If he still has that business sense, he could do some exciting things.
“His problem was that his personal life just got all screwy.”
Billings’ personal life has come under scrutiny during the Novell lawsuit. According to coverage of the lawsuit in both the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret Morning News, Novell obtained and distributed a 1985 pamphlet, “The True Dream of Zion,” that Billings wrote to his family explaining his reasons for leaving the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In the pamphlet, he criticizes the church for abandoning its belief in polygamy.
“In my opinion, I no longer believe (the LDS church) to be true and divine,” Billings told the Deseret Morning News in a Jan. 3, 2004, article. “Joseph Smith and Brigham Young taught that it was the will of God that men should have more than one wife.”
After leaving the church — there is a dispute over whether he was excommunicated — Billings became the “patriarch and prophet” of The Church of Jesus Christ in Zion, based in Independence.
But Billings told the Journal-World that his statements on polygamy have been misinterpreted. He said he does not believe in polygamy and has never practiced it. He said he left the LDS church because of the polygamy issue, because he was troubled the church could disavow a practice it once considered divine.
“I don’t buy into the notion that God changes his mind,” Billings said.
It was also during the mid-1980s that Billings started an unconventional school in Independence. Billings, with six other scientists, founded the unaccredited International Academy of Science in 1985.
Billings, who has no degree higher than a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university, became the first graduate of the school’s doctorate program.
Ever since, Billings has used the term “doctor” on his resume and other correspondence. Time magazine, in a July article about his hydrogen research, even dubbed him Dr. Hydrogen. But Billings said he didn’t consider his title to be disingenuous.
“I have never told anybody that I have a Ph.D.,” Billings said. “I tell everybody up front about my degree because I’m very proud of the academy. I think it is one of the most significant things I have ever done.”
The academy has about 120 students currently, and Billings said it was structured to be different from a traditional university.
“We’re looking for students who have an entrepreneurial spirit, rather than someone looking to be a professor or a scholar,” Billings said.
Despite his unorthodox education, Billings is widely regarded as an expert in using hydrogen as a fuel source. As a high school student he converted his father’s Model A Ford to run on hydrogen, winning him a scholarship to BYU and first prize in an international science competition.
In 1977, he drove a hydrogen-fueled Cadillac in Jimmy Carter’s inauguration parade. While living in Utah, he built a home that was entirely powered by hydrogen, and even mowed his lawn with a hydrogen-powered lawn mower.
“I have to say that he probably knows as much about hydrogen as anyone in the world,” Stokes said.
T. Nejat Veziroglu, president of the International Association of Hydrogen Energy and director of the University of Miami’s Clean Energy Research Institute, said Lawrence leaders should take Billings’ proposal seriously.
“He is one of the pioneers in this field,” Veziroglu said. “He definitely was one of the first to work on hydrogen fuel cells.”
Now large companies such as Toyota, General Motors and Ford are investing millions into producing hydrogen fuel cells, Veziroglu said. Veziroglu said Billings had the ability to compete with those giants.
“He is a good contender to be the winner in this competition,” Veziroglu said.