about latest innovation
After selling the first company he founded for more than $1 million, University of Wisconsin-Madison engineering alum Chad Sorenson wasn’t sure what to do next.
Though he found plenty of opportunities to work in industry, Sorenson (who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering in 1999 and 2001, respectively, and a master’s of business administration in 2002) was still drawn to entrepreneurship.
So, with three other partners, he decided to found Sologear, a company that debuted its first product, a charcoal-replacement fuel cell, in Madison-area stores in late April and early May.
Sorenson created Fluent Systems to market a product he developed for the Schoofs Prize for Creativity, one of two UW-Madison undergraduate innovation competitions known together as Innovation Days. In 2000, Sorenson’s “TankMate,” a microcontroller-based device to aid farmers in applying anhydrous ammonia to fields, won the top Schoofs award of $10,000.
In 2001, TankMate won the second Innovation Days competition, the Tong Prototype Prize, which provides $2,500 to the best prototype of a Schoofs idea. Additionally, TankMate took second place in the UW-Madison G. Steven Burrill Technology Business Plan Competition.
Two years later, Sorenson’s time and talent paid off again—this time, when he sold Fluent Systems to Raven Industries Inc. of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Now at Sologear, however, Sorenson isn’t the only veteran innovator. In April 2007, Sorenson hired Peter Berget, who earned his bachelor’s in engineering mechanics and astronautics in 2006.
Like Sorenson, Berget learned the ropes of entrepreneurship through the Innovation Days competitions. In 2006, he participated in the Schoofs and Tong contests on a team that developed a device called the “Easy Kneeler,” which enables users—for example, carpenters or gardeners—to sit and kneel at the same time.
The 2006 competition was Sorenson’s first year as a judge, and the next year he and Berget again crossed paths when Sologear was looking for engineering help. Berget stood out from the many applicants because of his Schoofs Prize experience.
Innovation Days participants have self-selected themselves as innovators with an entrepreneurial edge, says Sorenson. “There’s a higher frequency of self-starters in the competition,” he says.
Before hiring Berget to test product performance, Sorenson spent more than a year in his garage working on the Sologear fuel cell and, he says, “setting my hair on fire.” Called FlameDisk, the product is a nine-and-a-half-inch disk that can be placed in the bottom of a charcoal grill. It provides instant heat for 45 minutes, enough time to cook two or three rounds of meat. “This is essentially like giving people who have a charcoal grill the same performance as a propane grill,” says Sorenson.
The disk cools down quickly and is easy to clean up since it produces no messy ash or soot.
FlameDisk is the first Sologear product, but it is not the idea the company was founded upon: Sologear was originally formed to commercialize a disposable grill powered by gelled alcohol.
However, says Sorenson, what you shoot for initially in entrepreneurship isn’t necessarily where you end up. Sologear has evolved into pursuing multiple products based on a solidified ethanol, though a disposable grill is still in the works for next year.
Lessons in creativity
The flexibility inherent in entrepreneurship also trickles down to individual employees. Part of Berget’s job at Sologear is to “goof around” and experiment with his own ideas. And his freedom has benefited the company. In the last month, Berget saved Sologear $25,000 on the grill project by developing a new way of prototyping with simple materials. “That’s pretty valuable,” Sorenson says.
With his first company, Sorenson had to experiment with all aspects of entrepreneurship. He learned how to manufacture, distribute and market products, and he learned how to protect his intellectual property and address quality-control issues.
At Sologear, Berget has a similar opportunity to witness the many facets of product development. “Being around the business and at the office, I can see what everybody’s doing and all the workings of the company,” he says. “It’s been very educational for me.”
Key information for innovation
Berget says Innovation Days was a good introduction to the product design and development process. “Not only do you make your product, but then you get really good feedback on your idea and how well you did at developing it,” he says. “The idea is very important. To have a great project, you need a good idea, and you want to start thinking about that early.”
As a competition judge, Sorenson agrees that the idea is crucial. “Does this product really have any significance in the world and does it have a chance at commercial success?” he asks. “I think a good inventor keeps that in mind before they invest a bunch of time and resources into something. Otherwise you’re going to solve a trivial problem.”
After developing an idea, the natural next step for innovators is prototyping, which is Berget’s favorite part of product design and development. “You take your raw materials and, in any way you can, build the final goal,” he says. Berget isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, which is crucial at Sologear, says Sorenson.
Throughout the creative process, Sorenson and Berget use research and communication skills—from patent searches to talking with manufacturers to working on a team—that they developed and practiced in the Innovation Days competitions.
In addition, the competitions also taught Berget the importance of meticulous documentation in the inventive process. Maintaining a “design notebook” is Sorenson’s specialty; he’s credited with submitting one of the best design notebooks ever for his TankMate. In 2005, Sorenson founded the $1,000 Sorenson Best Design Notebook Award to recognize an Innovation Days competitor for outstanding documentation.
Though the rewards can be great, Sorenson says the education that comes from professional entrepreneurship isn’t always easy. “You get thrown to the wolves, and you’re either going to sink or swim based on your ability to perform,” he says. “If you fail, it’s probably a little less comfy than just losing your job. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”