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Young (and not so Young) Entrepreneurs
Making Their Mark

A young engineering professor adds industry consulting to his busy schedule to help send more relevant messages as a teacher.

By Ray Bert

From Thomas Edison to Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard to Yahoo! founders David Filo and Jerry Yang, engineers of all types have a long, proud history of wildly successful entrepreneurial ventures. And while young software engineering and Internet hotshots are currently hogging the media spotlight, the entrepreneurial spirit still burns in the more traditional engineering fields.

Success On Tap

Take a civil engineer, a mechanical engineer, and a biologist, add keg after keg of beer, and what have you got? True, maybe a fraternity initiation ritual, but you also have the basis for a successful company.

Edward LaFortune, Peter Quinn, and Kevin Buckler-all graduates of Worcester Polytechnic Institute-chucked their full-time jobs aside in 1994 to open the Wachusett Brewing Company, a microbrewery located in central Massachusetts. Relying on their considerable experience with home brewing, and especially on their engineering and science know-how, the three founders have developed a popular, and profitable-almost $1 million in sales in 1998-line of small-batch ales sold across the state.

While many people might dream about brewing beer for a living, it was the men's technical backgrounds that helped them turn the idea into a reality. Buckler, the mechanical engineer, used his skills to design and refine the brewing apparatus, which he and LaFortune initially cobbled together from castoff equipment such as dairy vats and pharmaceutical tanks. Quinn, the biologist, served as the company's first head brewer-crafting the recipes and running the quality control laboratory.

LaFortune, the civil engineer and company president, used his environmental experience to navigate the murky waters of permits, federal and state licenses, and EPA and OSHA regulations. These days, LaFortune devotes much of his time to marketing and distribution issues. Those business-related concerns were the trio's biggest blind spot when they began their venture, he says, recalling that the early days were "100 percent business education being shoved down my throat."

Today, the founders aren't sitting back counting their money and toasting their success with mugs of Country Nut Brown Ale or one of their seven other varieties. LaFortune and Buckler are currently busy with "space engineering"-rearranging the brewery layout to squeeze as much capacity out of the original building as possible. "Five years later, what keeps me going is tackling the engineering issues," LaFortune says.

An E.E.'s Big Adventure

University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate Matt Younkle also knows something of beer-soaked flashes of inspiration.

Standing in a long, slow-moving line in a Wisconsin bar several years ago, Younkle, then a dual electrical engineering and computer science junior, wondered why someone hadn't developed a faster way to draw beer from a keg.

Some time later, Younkle and a fellow student presented their own solution to the "problem" as an entry in a university-sponsored invention contest. After TurboTap took the $10,000 first prize in the 1996 competition, the inventors busied themselves with applying for a patent (granted in the fall of 1998) and pitching the prototype to beer industry heavies.

Younkle's great idea is more of an interesting diversion than a career direction, however. After graduation, Younkle signed on as a vice-president with a start-up technology firm in Chicago, and has since moved on to yet another software start-up, and another vice-president role, in Madison. Both positions are sales and marketing, not technical roles.

"I went to an engineering school primarily for the challenge, not because I'm a techie," Younkle says. More interested in marketing and making presentations, he says that selling high-tech products is easier to do with a technical background, and the respect that comes with it. Despite his heady titles, "I constantly seek help from others" on business issues, he says.

As for his better beer tap, Anheuser-Busch has asked for several dozen prototypes for pilot-testing in a stadium or other large venue, and Younkle may turn the project back over to the university to refine and produce the prototypes. He's not planning to re-involve himself in the technical aspects, but there is still one aspect of his invention that holds his interest. "Gaining acceptance for TurboTap is more of a marketing than an equipment issue now," he muses.

Learning the Ropes

Not every successful engineering entrepreneur is fresh out of school and green on the ways of the world. Jim Cain, a mechanical engineer with a Ph.D. in powder mechanics, was a senior research engineer for Eastman Kodak for 15 years before making a full-time go at Teamplay, a company he started that uses "challenge courses" to develop rapport and teamwork skills for corporation retreats or youth groups.

In truth, Cain got more than a bit of a push into the world of self-employment when Kodak downsized last year. Fortunately, he had already been running Teamplay part-time for seven years.

Forming Teamplay in 1991 was itself an extension of Cain's longtime involvement with the Boy Scouts, 4-H, and other youth groups, which often use challenge courses as experiential educational tools. He also mechanically tested adventure equipment during his graduate studies. Drawing on his mechanical engineering background, Cain began to design his own courses, which often include climbing towers, rope bridges and ladders, as well as ground-based obstacles, and he quickly made a name for himself. "People appreciate an engineer in this field," he says.

What Cain didn't have when he struck out on his own was any formal business training, though he did have some experience managing big-budget projects at Kodak. Still, he has landed projects for NASA, the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, and most recently with Cornell University, which plans to put all of its freshman engineering students though a challenge course team-building program starting this fall in an effort to increase retention.

And while he continues to show people of all stripes the ropes, Cain sheepishly admits that he still has a few to learn himself, businesswise: "I haven't quite figured out how much I made last year."

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