Tag Archives: entrepreneurship

Mentors help inventors make the leap to entrepreneur

Patrick Heaney, founder of NCD Technologies, uses a pyrometer to check temperatures inside of the vacuum chamber in the company’s lab at UW’s Research Park on Madison’s west side. The company is part of the UW MERLIN Mentors program. Photo by Bryce Richter.

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.

Read the full story here.

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Entrepreneur Summit Taps Coastal Connections

Pitch your business idea, get inspired by Wisconsin success stories and hear from Badger entrepreneurs far and wide at the 2013 Badger Startup Summit, held on Friday, August 16 at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. The summit will launch a new online network for budding entrepreneurs, and feature talks by innovators from high-tech hotspots like the Bay Area, Chicago and New York. Register by July 31 for a discounted rate.

Participants can get the inside story on recent Wisconsin ventures big and small, including EatStreet, StudyBlue, ShopBop, Tomotherapy and Sonic Foundry, as well as outside-looking-in perspectives from successful Badgers such as Pavan Nigam, founding partner of Inspovation and co-founder of WebMD.

The summit is one part of the 11-day Forward Technology Festival and sponsored by the UW-Madison Office of Corporate Relations, the Silicon Valley Badgers and host of local organizations.

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Silicon Valley Badger Craig Palmer: And now for something completely new …

Craig Palmer

Craig Palmer

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.”

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Helping solar energy’s future shine bright

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.

Tom WernerIt was also reported that Apple Inc. uses SunPower arrays to help power its massive data center in North Carolina—a system that produces enough kilowatts to power 17,600 homes.

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.
(more…)

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Phillips Plastics co-founder Cervenka honored in U.S. House speech

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.”

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Virent Produces Biofuel from Source Outside Food Supply

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently reported on the success of Virent Energy Systems of Madison in creating biogasoline from a combination of corn stalks and leaves left on farms after the corn harvest, as well as pine tree branches, needles and stumps left on the forest floor after logging. Former Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering Researcher Randy Cortright (PhD, 1994) and Steenbock Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering James Dumesic formed Virent in 2002 to commercialize a single-step, low-temperature, catalytic reforming process that can generate hydrogen and a wide range of fuels from sugars, ethylene glycol and methane. Read the article at http://www.jsonline.com/business/123068063.html

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Medical, Aviation Ideas Triumph at 2011 Innovation Days

From more effective life-saving stents to more efficient controls for small aircraft, UW-Madison engineering students put their ingenuity on display at the 2011 Innovation Days, which just concluded with the announcement of winners of more than $27,000 in prizes. An idea for an electronically controlled arterial stent that can be deployed more precisely by surgeons won the $10,000 Schoofs Prize for Creativity. An idea for a flight training instrument that better simulates airplane balance and control for pilots won the $2,500 Tong Prototype Prize. Read more about all of today’s winners.

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Field Reports: Matt Younkle of murfie.com in Madison

TurboTap Founder Matt Younkle

With 2011 Innovation Days right around the corner, we decided to catch up with one of the early champions of the competition: Matt Younkle (ECE, ‘97). Younkle parlayed his success in the 1996 Schoofs Prize into the highly successful TurboTap, a fast-pouring beer dispenser used in sports stadiums across the globe. Today, he’s launching a new venture called murfie.com. Younkle is writing the first installment of Field Reports, which will feature first-person accounts from UW-Madison engineering alums. (more…)

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