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Tag Archives: alumni
Mechanical engineering graduate Chris Meyer founded Sector67 three years ago on Madison’s east side. Today, the “makerspace” offers its members an unpredictable atmosphere and crucial support for their startup ideas. Read more.
It’s a story that could become a company’s founding narrative. The two Steves built their first Apple computer in the garage. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to start a software company. And 4-year-old Patrick Heaney broke a plastic sword while play-fighting — and recognized that materials can always stand improvement.
Eventually, that could become the founding narrative of NCD Technologies LLC, a Madison startup that is developing a super-hard diamond coating for industrial cutting tools.
The technique was invented in the UW-Madison lab of mechanical engineering Associate Professor Frank Pfefferkorn, where Heaney received his Ph.D. in 2009. But when NCD finally makes a profit, some of the credit will be due to a high-tech, high-touch UW mentoring program called MERLIN Mentors.
Despite the name, MERLIN (Madison Entrepreneur Resource, Learning and Innovation Network) specializes in advice rather than magic. “We want to get skills in entrepreneurship to people interested in creating companies,” says Terry Sivesind, MERLIN’s director.
Tom Werner, a 1982 UW-Madison industrial and systems engineering alumnus and CEO of solar energy company SunPower Inc., visited the UW-Madison campus on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013, to give a talk about his company’s growth and what the future holds for solar energy. In these excerpts from the talk, Werner argues that solar energy doesn’t just have staying power, but also has the potential disrupt the energy industry.
Following is a transcript of the podcast:
Scott Gordon: It’s not surprising that the CEO of one of the world’s leading solar-energy companies would defend the viability of solar and offer some well-honed rebuttals to common criticisms of solar. But Tom Werner, CEO of SunPower Inc. and an alumnus of the UW-Madison College of Engineering’s Industrial and Systems Engineering Department, went a step further when he visited campus on September 6, 2013, to give a talk at Union South. Werner argued that solar energy is not only more practical than many people think, but that it’s also poised to shake up energy markets in a profound way.
Tom Werner: The state of the solar industry, renewable industry in general but for sure the solar industry, is at a phenomenally important time. And the fact that we can sell energy that’s comparable to conventional energy, which some of you in the room will dispute, I’m sure, at some point here—you’re wrong. We can compete. That’s going to be fundamentally disruptive to the way conventional energy is delivered.
Scott Gordon: During his talk, Werner elaborated on where solar energy does and doesn’t work in the United States.
Tom Werner: Solar is disrupting conventional electricity in Hawaii as we speak. Japan, same thing. New Jersey’s a very big market for solar. Not so much, hardly at all, in Wisconsin. When I say “solar energy” to most of you, it doesn’t mean much. If you were in California, it’s the opposite. People are like, “What do you mean, you don’t have a solar system?”
Scott Gordon: But he also noted that there’s even more interest in solar overseas.
Tom Werner: The short story is, China wants solar energy badly now. They set a goal of 35 gigawatts by 2015. That’s more than America’s ever installed, cumulative. They’re going to do 10 gigawatts this year. When China says they’re going to do something, they do it big. The reason why they want it is because you can’t breathe the air in most parts of China. The pollution is horrific. The number-one market this year in solar is China.
Scott Gordon: Werner didn’t shy away from discussing the tension that exists between solar companies like SunPower and more traditional utility companies.
Tom Werner: I went to see P&E and the CEO was telling me to get coffee for him. Very dismissive. By the way, when I was sitting with him, the market cap of SunPower was bigger than his, but I didn’t say that to him. But he was literally like, “Why am I meeting with you?” He subsequently has been fired, and I’m still here.
Scott Gordon: Still, he acknowledged that before the big disruption happens, the solar-energy industry has to overcome a few obstacles.
Tom Werner: It’s not intermittent. It’s very predictable. It makes energy when the sun’s out. Then you say, “Well, but there’s clouds.” But the clouds aren’t simultaneously over the entire array. So you can actually predict the output of a solar system fairly well. You’re right, if you add storage it’s perfect. Solar is not dispatchable. You can’t use it when you want. When you get storage, that’s the killer combination.
Scott Gordon: Learn more about accomplished UW-Madison engineering alumni at badgerengineers.engr.wisc.edu.
Exelon Generation has named alumnus Bryan Hanson (BSNEEP ’88) chief operating officer and senior vice president of its nuclear fleet. Exelon is the largest operator of nuclear power facilities in the United States.
In his new role, Hanson will oversee the daily operation for all 10 of Exelon’s nuclear facilities. Exelon operates the largest nuclear fleet in the United States and the third largest in the world.
“Bryan has demonstrated outstanding leadership of Exelon’s Midwest nuclear plants, ensuring all plant personnel maintain a steadfast focus on the safe operation of those facilities,” says Exelon Nuclear President and Chief Nuclear Officer Mike Pacilio. “His technical knowledge of our nuclear plants, coupled with his ambition and relentless pursuit of excellence are what will help drive our organization to be the best operator of nuclear plants in the world.”
Hanson, who has been with the company his entire career, has held various managerial positions within both Exelon’s Midwest and Mid-Atlantic operations, which include Illinois, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Prior to his newly named position, he was the senior vice president of operations for Exelon Generation’s six Midwest nuclear facilities and 11 reactors. (Read more about this role in the Badger Engineers profile of Hanson in February 2013.)
During his tenure with Exelon, Hanson also has served as the site vice president for Exelon’s Braidwood Generating Station and the site vice president for Clinton Power Station. In both these roles, he was responsible for all plant operations. He also has been vice president of nuclear oversight, Limerick Generating Station plant manager, and director of operations and work control.
Hanson also holds an MBA from St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, is a graduate of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations Senior Nuclear Plant Management Program and the Exelon Leadership Institute at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University.
ATA Engineering Inc., of San Diego, is one of two companies to receive the George M. Low Award, the premier NASA honor for quality and performance. ATA, whose president is Mary Baker (BSEM ’66), supported development of the Mars Science Laboratory and its robotic rover, Curiosity, at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
With 93 employees, this small business played a key role in the mission by conducting detailed mechanical simulation work to support spacecraft’s challenging entry, descent and landing at Mars in August 2012.
Evaluators cited ATA’s problem-solving ability, demonstrated with the design of Curiosity’s sampling scoop; its emphasis on contracting with small business and hiring young talent with high potential; and its strong culture of teamwork.
URS Federal Technical Services Inc. of Germantown, Maryland, earned the Low award in the large business award category.
The Low award demonstrates NASA’s commitment to promoting excellence and continual improvement by challenging its contractor community to be a global benchmark of quality management practices. The award was established in 1985 as NASA’s Excellence Award for Quality and Productivity and renamed in 1990 in memory of George M. Low, an outstanding leader with a strong commitment to quality products and workforce during his 27-year tenure at the agency. Low was NASA’s deputy administrator from 1969 to 1976 and a leader in the early development of space programs. Read the full NASA news release here.
Read a 2001 profile of Baker in the UW-Madison Department of Engineering Physics newsletter for alumni and friends.
“I’ve spent my whole life measuring time”
The Global Positioning System (GPS), today one of the most versatile technologies on the planet, was still a highly experimental, underfunded military project when it first piqued Jim Sorden’s interest in the mid-1980s.
But its potential compelled Sorden to make a bold move, leaving his 24-year career with Hewlett Packard in Palo Alto to join a small startup called Trimble Navigation. Long before the technology started popping into everything from auto dashboards to golf bags, Charles Trimble had some early hunches on civilian GPS applications. “It was a gamble at the time,” says Sorden, a 1962 graduate and major supporter of electrical and computer engineering. “But I thought this one had a chance. So at the age of 50, I took a flier on it. It was terrific.”
Trimble became the first company to launch viable, effective products in the GPS arena, starting with applications in surveying, mining, offshore drilling and construction. Sorden says Trimble’s precision GPS surveying systems made a massive impact on the field, where heavy, slow and expensive were once the norm.
They transformed a process—which once required 100-pound GPS machines costing $250,000 and requiring a full day to produce a single, precision measurement—into a digital solution that provided real-time measurements in seconds, at an equipment cost of under $25,000. “The productivity of surveyors increased 10- to 100-fold,” he says.
Sorden began at Trimble in 1987 as VP of product development and had 10 staff engineers. By the late 1990s, Sorden had more than 1,500 engineering, marketing, manufacturing and financial staff working in his division. “When Trimble started, the military wasn’t even convinced GPS worked,” says Sorden. “But our founder had experience in the chip industry and figured if GPS is going to work, it will have to be all digital. That was the primary reason for our early success. We ended up playing a big role in getting GPS fully funded by the government, because at no cost to the government, we demonstrated practical military GPS and we found uses the military never thought about.”
The United States only had four good satellites in orbit when he first started, Sorden says. They could only retrieve measuring points when all satellites were ideally aligned, for a few hours each day. But they demonstrated during those windows they could survey to within one inch of accuracy. “The military was happy to get data with accuracy levels within 50 feet, until the Gulf War in the early ’90s, when the need for precise GPS became apparent,” he says.
One of Sorden’s favorite applications is in farming. “Farmers always plant and harvest their crops at the absolute peak time. They work all day and night until the planting or harvesting is done, and it may take 30 or more hours,” he says. “That first hour is all straight rows … but you’re not very good after three hours.”
Today, for about $3,000, a farmer can install a complete GPS system on his tractor that will guide absolutely straight rows every time. “This was a huge enhancement to farming productivity, with the side benefit in that it helps farmers precisely measure the per-bushel productivity of each small piece of their land,” says Sorden.
He describes his Hewlett Packard years as almost like home. “You were working for Mother HP,” he says. “They really took care of their employees, with high expectations for hard work.”
The company did not offer retirement plans, but instead offered inexpensive HP stock purchase plans and options, which proved to be infinitely more lucrative given the growth of the company from the 1950s to ‘90s.
Sorden started out his career simply wanting to be an engineer, yet kept receiving opportunities from HP to move into management and strategic planning. He rose to each challenge, often with help from additional courses at nearby Stanford University. “Some people are really good at being clever and productive engineers and when promoted, find out they’re not very good managers or leaders,” he says. “I think I was good because I was a boss in the army, Sergeant Sorden. I actually was awful, but I learned all the things not to do.”
He enlisted in the U.S. Army the day he graduated from Madison West High School in 1955. He spent five years in the military—three active duty; two in active reserves. Enrolling at UW-Madison after his military commitment, he received his bachelor’s in the minimum time. He then enrolled in the ECE graduate program and also was a research assistant. Sorden and his wife, Anne, support an endowed professorship, currently held by David Anderson, in the department.
His research expertise was in developing measurement instruments to analyze time and amplitude to achieve ever-increasing levels of accuracy. Sorden holds eight U.S. patents, primarily in the measurement field, and his expertise was tapped by the Reagan administration in the early 1980s during its exploration of “Star Wars,” the satellite-based missile defense system.
“I’ve spent my whole life measuring time,” he quips.
Some career trajectories follow a straight and narrow path; others take unexpected twists and turns. Craig Palmer’s career might be likened to a cross-country road trip—the kind where you leave the map at home and see where the road takes you.
Palmer, a 1983 graduate of electrical and computer engineering, is currently CEO of Wikia, a San Francisco-based online content network that builds user communities around thousands of topics, from popular culture to lifestyle. The company, which Palmer describes as “the biggest Internet company no one has heard of,” currently has more than 70 million unique visitors worldwide.
But let’s start with how he got there.
“One common theme for me is I would get bored doing the same thing, and I always like new challenges,” Palmer says. “I am unafraid to just sort of tackle something I’m ill-prepared for.”
With his freshly minted ECE degree, he landed his first job in technical marketing—a departure from pure engineering—with Hewlett Packard Corp. at its Fort Collins, Colorado, offices. He was part of the work group that brought the first UNIX workstations to market. One of his more notable memories is carrying the first UNIX tapes to Bell Laboratories to validate their implementation.
After several years with HP, Palmer’s intellectual curiosity began to take a sharp turn from hardware to software—from the powerful black boxes to the stuff that made them come to life. He moved to Silicon Valley and got a job with software company Cadence, which launched in 1988 and became a world leader in electronic design automation software for chip and circuit board design.
Cadence grew quickly, went public and began regularly acquiring new companies. And Palmer got the IPO and startup bug—along with a desire to get in on the ground floor. “I saw the power of how quickly software could grow and the value it could create,” he says.
Palmer left Cadence in 1994 to join Aspect Development, a new business-to-business software company, as VP of marketing. Over five years and a successful IPO, revenues grew from $5 million to more than $100 million. On March 10, 2000, Aspect Management would make history: Acquired by fellow B2B company i2 for $9.3 billion, it became the biggest-money merger in software history at the time.
That day represented the single-day peak of the dot-com-era NASDAQ Composite, and only about a month before its tailspin.
Tackling a new challenge—this time with a consumer Internet company—Palmer moved to a eWanted, kind of the conceptual inverse of eBay. This company allowed consumers to post offers to buy a particular product, and the sellers to post bids. The more bids received, the lower the price fell.
eWanted acquired an auction company called Fleetwood-Owen, co-founded by Mick Fleetwood of rock band Fleetwood Mac, and morphed into a vertical marketplace for auctions, reverse auctions and sale of entertainment memorabilia. Memorable sales included the piano that John Lennon used to write “Imagine,” the moon buggy from James Bond’s Moonraker, and the largest collection of Elvis Presley memorabilia outside of Graceland.
In 2001, eWanted planned an auction around artistic works of original Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe, John Lennon’s best friend and an accomplished artist. Sutcliffe’s sister kept a large cache of Sutcliffe’s works after his untimely death in 1962, and eWanted engineered an estate sale that drew international media attention. “We were supposed to sell this on September 11, 2001, in New York,” Palmer says.
The 9-11 tragedy changed the world in many ways, including a lost interest in luxury items. The company decided to liquidate its assets. “You can only control how well you do,” he says. “You can’t control the market or the world at large.”
Palmer remains positive about the venture. “I have a huge passion for music, and it allowed me to merge business and personal for the first time,” he says. “It was also the first time I was able to explain to my mom in Oshkosh what I did for a living.”
Where’s the next destination?
In 2002, Palmer became CEO of Gracenote, another fascinating (and now well-known) Silicon Valley start-up. Gracenote is a great “tinkering engineer” story—in this case, engineer Steve Scherf wanted to know what songs were on his computer without checking the jewel box. So he created CD recognition technology that digitally displays the artist and individual tracks—a feature now ubiquitous in media players and home and car stereos. “Anything that you put a battery in, plug into a wall, or put gasoline in will at some point do something with digital media,” Palmer says. “We wanted a home for Gracenote everywhere. We kept scaling, scaling, scaling.”
The Gracenote story reached its zenith in 2008 with a sale to Sony. It was a gratifying experience for Palmer, helping some of his team experience the same startup success that he reaped with Aspect Development.
Which brings us back to Wikia, Palmer’s latest digital venture. Palmer was hired in 2011 to lead the company, billed as Wikipedia’s commercial sibling, also founded by Jimmy Wales. While Wikipedia draws vast online information into a distilled set of concise encyclopedic facts, Wikia invites online users to use its collaborative publishing platform to create vast amounts of multimedia content. “Wikipedia is like the encyclopedia in the library, and we’re the rest of the books in the building,” he says.
Wikia has more than 300,000 communities today, spanning video games, entertainment, food, fashion, travel, education and politics. Each community has a range of users with different skills who manage the site, write, edit, design graphics used in the site, and generally create and share content around their passion. Wikia is the No. 1 global site for video gaming communities and is the fastest growing entertainment site in the world. While Wikia unsurprisingly has communities on popular topics such as Star Wars, Star Trek, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, and Call of Duty, it also has surprising communities built around topics such as bacon and My Little Pony.
Every day, 500 new Wika communities launch. “What makes Wikia so unique in social media today, is that most social networks—Facebook, Twitter and others—are all about individual expression and are often short-attention-span theater, where the thing you say today is forgotten tomorrow,” he says. “In our collaborative world, you band together with the most knowledgeable and educated set of people around a particular subject and create a lasting body of work.”
Looking back, Palmer says there is some common ground in his diverse professional road trip. One is a deep understanding of technology he learned at UW-Madison, a technical map that allowed him to understand how things worked and why they were important to his companies’ success.
Being able to relate to the technical innovators offers a huge marketplace advantage. Coupled with some risk-taking and hunger to learn, Palmer found himself doing things he never imagined.“I would never have been able to plan or foresee the path I took,” Palmer says. “From hardcore engineering to Wikia is a really long journey, actually, but has also been an extremely fun and satisfying one.”
Thomas Werner’s solar energy company, SunPower Inc., in San Jose, has been keeping some pretty high-profile company these days. Take the San Francisco 49ers: The franchise is partnering with SunPower this year to make the new $1.2 billion Santa Clara stadium the greenest in the National Football League.
And then there’s Warren Buffett, the household name of mega-investors. Buffett’s organization, MidAmerican Solar, is investing as much as $2.5 billion in a Los Angeles-area SunPower installation that is the largest permitted solar power development in the world.
Naturally, this is great business news for Werner, a 1982 UW-Madison industrial and systems engineering alumnus who has served as SunPower CEO since 2003. But these stories also represent an exciting turning point for the industry, which Werner describes as “the mainstreaming of solar energy” across major corporations, utilities and residential homes.
Justin Beck ’09 and Forrest Woolworth ’09 (both computer engineering and computer sciences) are among the nine exceptional young University of Wisconsin-Madison alumni honored with the 2013 Forward under 40 awards, presented by the Wisconsin Alumni Association. All recipients are living examples of the Wisconsin Idea, the guiding philosophy upon which this award is based, and honorees were featured in the sixth edition of Forward under 40, a publication distributed in March 2013 to UW-Madison alumni and WAA members.
For those still stuck in the Pac Man era, video games may seem like nothing more than child’s play. But these days, video games are big business.
According to the Entertainment Software Association, computer and video game sales topped $16 billion in 2011. And thanks to Justin Beck and Forrest Woolworth, Wisconsin is a major player in the industry.
Their company, PerBlue — a mobile and social gaming company based in Madison — created Parallel Kingdom, the world’s first location-based role-playing game that uses GPS locations to place players in a virtual world on top of the real world. It now has more than 1 million registered accounts and helped PerBlue become the third-largest video game company in the state.
“We started small,” recalls Beck, “a team of six squeezed into every inch of my 700-square-foot apartment in downtown Madison. Today, three years after the founding of PerBlue, we now employ over 30 full-time employees.”
And while Parallel Kingdom remains PerBlue’s primary focus, in 2012, the company launched Parallel Mafia and Parallel Zombies, two more location-based games. PerBlue also ventured into casual games this past year with Bugduster, Bob vs. Bear, and Boardtastic.
For Beck and Woolworth, though, the game they’re really in to win is the entrepreneurial one. And both owe their business ambitions to UW-Madison. Read more about the duo here.
On May 14, 2013, Congressman Sean P. Duffy of Wisconsin delivered a short talk before the U.S. House of Representatives to recognize alum Robert Cervenka (BSME ’58). Cervenka co-founded Phillips Plastics in 1964 and was its chairman and CEO until he and his wife, Debbie (the company executive vice president and a member of the board of directors), sold it in 2010.
Bob Cervenka recently earned a lifetime achievement award from the Price County (Wisconsin) Economic Development Association.
Following is a transcript of Duffy’s U.S. House speech:
“Mr. Speaker, I rise today to recognize the business accomplishments of Robert F. Cervenka of Phillips, Wisconsin, who has been presented the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Price County Economic Development Association.
Bob Cervenka was born and raised in the small town of Phillips, Wisconsin. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After his graduation in 1958, Bob returned to the community that he loved to pursue his new business venture–the Phillips Plastics Corporation.
Phillips Plastics began operations on October 20, 1964, occupying an old creamery building in Phillips. In 1967, the company broke ground on a new 12,000 square foot custom plastic facility where they employed 30 skilled workers dedicated to crafting innovative control knobs for automobiles, dishwashers, fans, dehumidifiers, and dryers. In 1973, Phillips Plastics opened Precision Decorating in Medford, Wisconsin.
Shortly thereafter, the facility became known as Phillips Automotive, a full service design, manufacture, decoration, and assembly plant for high volume injection molded components. As industries from the Midwest moved to the south and offshore, Bob recognized that Wisconsin’s rural, small community workforce offered a unique competitive advantage. He developed additional plants in Chippewa Falls, Eau Claire, Menomonie, New Richmond, Hudson, and Prescott among others.
Capitalizing on the company’s success, Mr. Cervenka and co-founder Louie Vokurka established the independent philanthropic Ann Marie Foundation in 1974. Named after their mothers, the foundation worked to improve the quality of life within local communities that are home to Phillips Plastics facilities. Since its inception, the foundation has given over $8 million to schools and non-profit organizations.
Thanks to the business contributions of outstanding citizens like Robert F. Cervenka, Wisconsin’s economic future looks bright. I ask that my colleagues join me today to express our appreciation for Bob’s entrepreneurial spirit and our congratulations to him on receiving this well-deserved award.”