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Tag Archives: entrepreneur
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.
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.”
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.
In the late 1970′s, as an undergrad in nuclear engineering at UW-Madison, Pat Hanrahan achieved perfect grades. That was one of his earlier accomplishments. He went on to earn a PhD in biophysics at Madison. In the 1980s, he worked at the New York Institute of Technology Computer Graphics Laboratory, Digital Equipment Corporation, and was a founding employee at Pixar. In 1989, he joined the faculty of Princeton University. In 1995, he moved to Stanford. He has received two Academy Awards and a technical Oscar and is a member of the National Academy of Engineering. In 2003, he co-founded Tableau software to take business analytics to the masses. Read more about it in this article by Businessweek.
Simon Chen (PhD, 1952) became an expert in diesel engine development, including patented innovations. He also worked with the Diesel Engine Manufacturing Association, helping to develop industry standards for exhaust emission and noise abatement. Chen first worked for International Harvester, becoming the company’s chief engineer. Later work included roles at Fairbanks Morse Colt Industries of Beloit, and serving as president of the Beloit Power and Energy company. In 1979, he started his own consulting firm, Power and Energy International, running his firm until retirement in 2006. He also taught at the university as an adjunct professor. (Read more…)
Dan Reich is an electrical and computer engineer who builds businesses and pushes innovation. “I’m all about technology, business, culture, and entrepreneurship,” he says. In January 2011 Reich co-founded a social commerce company called Spinback. Four month later, Spinback was acquired by a company called Buddy Media, the Facebook management system of choice for eight out of the ten top global advertisers. Before Spinback, Reich was an early employee at Lotame, a business he helped grow from a small office with a handful of people, to one with several offices around the world. He has helped create new products and strategies, and secured business partnerships with companies like Google, Conde Nast and other media companies and startups.