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Reflections on innovation

Cedric Kovacs-Johnson and his invention, The American Press. Photos by David Nevala.

Past Schoofs Prize for Creativity and Innovation Days participants talk about their experiences in the competition and highlight lessons they’ve learned that have served them well in their professional lives.

Cedric Kovacs-Johnson

CBE, current student

2013—The American Press

I was prompted to enter the competition through contact with past participants as well as a design idea that I just couldn’t stop sketching. I was drawing design 
inspiration from so many sources and the more I developed my idea, the more 
passionate I became about my product.

My idea was inspired by simply observing my own daily life and objectively thinking about what could work better. A daily ritual for many—making coffee—struck me as a commonly accepted process, but one that hasn’t been made as tasteful, economical or efficient as it could be. Though I attribute the success of my project to the large market that is coffee, I developed the machine for myself. I found that making something I personally wanted to use was much more exciting and motivating than many assigned projects.

As a participant, I ran into physical 
challenges as well as design roadblocks. In prototyping I would constantly have to adjust my theoretical design to suit the materials and methods I had at my disposal. The 
transition from a sketch on paper to a physical object adds factors like weight, friction, bending or breakable materials. I overcame material and design challenges by trying and failing a lot as well as learning new techniques to manufacture a better product. When I compete again, I will try to use more efficient manufacturing techniques to ensure a more robust product.

In the days approaching the competition, 
I remember a combined feeling of overwhelming excitement and simultaneous anxiety. A project I had put my heart and hours into was finally on display to the world. And because I was proud of what 
I considered a job well done, it was the 
best feeling in the world.

The completion accomplished two things for me: It affirmed my ability to successfully design and market a product, as well as indirectly exposing me to real-world engineering where I was the manager, engineer, marketer and businessman. I did a great deal of growing up by setting and meeting my own deadlines and knowing my success was completely dependent on my drive.

I entered the Innovation Days competition 
before I had an idea. I knew the event attracted the type of people and environment I want to surround myself with. As time went on, I developed my product (The American Press) because I thought it was a novel idea, but not one that necessarily deserved the Innovation Days stage. It was not a humanitarian project so I believed I was entering the competition for fun—but developing my invention for my own satisfaction, not the potential prize money. I knew that win or lose, I would be back again next year because I just had so much fun making and inventing.

Laura (Zeitler) Hibbard

BSBME ‘11

2011—Breast Milk Filter for HIV-1 Virions

I work as a scientist in the biotechnology field. I have worked at a start-up company and used my communication and project management skills to help them secure several Phase I and II SBIR grants. I am currently working at Life Technologies in manufacturing while leading some continuous process improvement projects.

My partner, Kim Kamer, and I were very interested in applying our chemistry, biology and BME design background to a problem that wasn’t just assigned to us but that we recognized on our own. It was a great opportunity to set our own design specifications 
based on research of the global problem of HIV transmission through breast feeding.

I had taken an online course the semester preceding Innovation Days (Technical Symbiosis), which discussed the global problem of HIV transmission. I was surprised to find that breastfeeding accounted for more than 
40 percent of the HIV-1 transmission in 
Sub-Saharan Africa, when simple solutions like bottle formula could be used instead.

After delving deeper into the problem, I understood that culture and the stigma associated with AIDS were the driving forces that prevented the use of formula. My partner and I recognized that a mother could continue to safely breast feed if given a device that sequestered the HIV virions in the process, which led to our design. We had never written a patent draft before and the requirements for the competition encouraged us to learn more about the process through online research. It was a great opportunity to fill any small gaps that weren’t covered by the combination of classes we were already taking.

Laura (Zeitler) Hibbard (left) and Kim Kamer with their invention, a breast milk filter for HIV-1 virions.

Matt Kuhns 

BSEMA ‘08

2008—SafeSled

I am lead R&D engineer for ground fueling at Eaton Aerospace. I also 
have my own startup, Rapid D LLC, 
to build tooling for manufacturing single crystal turbine blades.

It was immensely challenging prepping for the competition while carrying a full course load of senior-level classes. To get all the work done, I remember working 16-hour days and spending some nights sleeping on the couch in the grad student lounge in Engineering Hall (they would conveniently leave it unlocked). I got to know the night cleaning staff quite well.

Participating in the competition increased my skill and confidence in public speaking 
and was a great talking point in job 
interviews. Winning the best notebook competition was a huge confidence booster as well, giving me faith that I could cut it 
in a real-world setting.

It also gave me confidence in my ability to invent and come up with ideas and follow through. I’ve used this to start my own 
company and apply for several patents. I 
successfully pitched my tooling invention to 
a Fortune 500 company in November 2013 and will be joint-venturing with them to bring it to market. Exciting stuff!

The confidence gained in presenting in front of such a large audience—partly because of all that went wrong during 
that presentation—has allowed me to 
successfully talk in front of large audiences at work.

The skills I first learned in Engineering Physics Professor Roderic Lakes’ classes about keeping a proper design notebook ended up winning me the best notebook award, and those skills, applied in industry, helped me avoid massive issues for the company I was working for when it was discovered defective parts had shipped. 
The detailed notes allowed us to track 
down exactly when and how the error occurred so that parts could be recalled from the field immediately, preventing potentially millions of dollars worth of equipment damage.

I still strive to keep the best design notebook possible and am sure the skills learned from Schoofs will keep being 
essential for years to come.

Jesse Gudmundson

BSEMA ‘07

2006—Hand-Righter

I am moving my career forward by joining the Navy Reserve in an engineering capacity (I am at my Navy technical training school right now). Upon finishing that, I am 
re-enrolling in graduate school at UW-Madison to finish a master’s degree in nuclear engineering and engineering physics.

My grandmother suffered from Parkinson’s-related hand tremors and my teammate Emily Prewett’s grandmother also suffered from hand tremors. 
Enabling them to continue to write letters, checks, etc. was a significant motivation.

Two of the greatest challenges we faced were designing for a wide variety of hand sizes and hand tremor stimuli (increased/decreased weight, etc.). The first challenge was addressed by researching similar devices (from writing devices to computer mouse shapes) and iterating on prototypes we created. The 
second challenge was addressed by adding variable components 
(variable weighting, adjustable finger grip, wrist strap, etc.).

I most remember the long hours my team put in. Also, by the time we got to the end we understood, not just intellectually, but through experience, how engineering projects evolved from concept to market.

I feel that I, my team, and my classmates came to really appreciate the “building block” process that is necessary to complete each phase of an engineering project. In fact, I have found that being able to identify and work hard on all the little steps in each phase of a project applies to numerous areas of life that require planning, and I am 
grateful for learning about this process through the Schoofs competition.

Mike Casper

BSME ‘04; MBA ‘12 (Northwestern University)

2004—BriteIce

I currently am president of FLEx Lighting in Chicago, 
serving as the key lead for all sales and marketing efforts to engage with high value customers on integrating FLEx’s lighting technology into their devices.

My teammate (Tony Nichol) had some optics experience and we tried a bunch of different ideas dealing with light. In the end, we were both sports fans and the in-ice illuminated advertising came out as our best idea.

Challenges included finding the time (but we both worked best at night when we could focus), and proving the concept in prototype form. We overcame this through sheer resourcefulness. At one point, we found a full-sized freezer that was about to be thrown away and we ripped out the coils and condenser, re-purposed the coils in a wooden box and poured ready-made concrete over the coils to create our own mini ice rink.  This cooled the ice from below (just like at the Kohl Center) and we saw our film light up before our eyes.

It changed my perspective forever. The team stayed together and continued to develop the technology. We quit our full-time jobs five years ago and have transformed the hockey idea into FLEx Lighting, the world’s thinnest LED light guide technology for consumer electronics and general lighting. I am president and Tony is VP of technology; we have grown to over 15 employees. The competition provided us the opportunity to create a solution on our own with no structure, and helped build my confidence that with hard work and the right team, anything can be created.

Chad Sorenson

BSME ‘99, MSME ‘01, MBA ‘02

2000—TankMate

I commercialized the TankMate for two years out of college, then sold it to a public company after we’d built 
distribution throughout North America. I pursued a second start-up based on a self-invention, FlameDisk, which I was involved with for seven years until recently, after selling it to BIC Corporation. I currently am doing some independent consulting for both small and large companies, teaching a class on innovation at UW-Madison, 
mentoring students, and sifting through many new ideas for my next venture.

My starting point originated from my cousin in Iowa, who farms about 10,000 acres of corn and soybeans. Each year for corn production, he’d apply a common nitrogen fertilizer called anhydrous ammonia. His problem, which was the seed of my project, was that he could not observe or otherwise know the remaining amount of fertilizer in his towed tank in the field. He offered some thoughts on how that problem could be solved and I then went about investigating the problem and potential solution in detail. My resulting project was a hybrid of those initial thoughts and other ideas that came long the way once I began working on it.

When I began the project, my first instincts were to start developing the mechanical housing. I spent weeks thinking about many ways this could be configured, laying everything out in 3D CAD modeling 
software. It then struck me that I was focused on the aspect of the project that I was more comfortable with, since I had a mechanical engineering background. This project, as I quickly realized, was mostly an exercise in electrical engineering, embedded controls and software—things I knew very little about.

My greatest challenge was working on a project that was outside my area of competence, recognizing that, and then acquiring the skills necessary to achieve my goal. I spoke with people I was working with at the time that had more familiarity with these matters, and that pointed the way for my own investigation and self-learning. I bought a lot of books at Barnes & Noble on how to program in C and did a lot of reading and coding on my own from there, which made me aware of a whole new world I wouldn’t have otherwise found through my normal courses.

I think given my knowledge at the time and my available resources, I did a lot of things right. However, I wish I would have been more concerned with the potential market and other nuances associated with the business proposition itself prior to diving into engineering the solution. I believe had I directed the passion and energy I put into this project toward a bigger problem I would have had an easier time down the road when I commercialized the invention. Lesson: Market size matters, so choose a meaningful problem before getting too involved with the solution.

My cousin was extremely helpful in giving me the insight I needed to understand the problem and the context; however, I should have involved other users and people involved with the application. I did this later, but it was deep into the development and I wish I would have had a balanced user perspective earlier. It turns out there were many subtleties that varied across farmers and so custom-developing this project just for 
my cousin was 
not as broadly 
applicable to others as it could have been had I better understood those differences. 
Lesson: Get diverse user feedback early and plan on user behavior within the target 
market being heterogeneous.

I remember staying up until 3 a.m. the morning of my presentation, putting finishing touches on my project in my college house, getting about two hours of sleep, then waking up the next morning to put on my suit and pretend as though I was well rested. It was a complete adrenaline rush, as I had worked pretty hard on this for the six months prior and it was a big part of my life. The day before, I went to Macy’s and bought a tie that matched the hue of yellow I chose for my product logo on my presentation board. I remember Karen Walsh (then-director of the engineering communications office) actually noticing that without me saying a word. Little things make a difference.

I remember going over to Union South by myself and finding a small empty room where I could rehearse my pitch before my presentation, and going through that again and again trying to improve the delivery. I had very little experience presenting anything at that point in my life and so that process was nerve-wracking and way outside my comfort zone.

I remember sitting in the audience with my sister during the awards ceremony and being shocked that my name wasn’t being called, until the end when I won. It was thrilling and one of the absolute best days of my life. It was extremely exciting and rewarding.

I remember calling my parents later that night, who could not attend due to a death in our family earlier that week, and telling them I won. I remember their joy and excitement for me on the phone. It was a potent positive development in an otherwise difficult week.

I remember waking up the next morning and realizing that all of the work I did to get ready for the competition hadn’t evaporated, and that I was accidentally a lot closer to my bigger goal of trying to get the product developed into something I could sell into the marketplace.

The Schoofs competition was the single most important inflection point in my life. It was the most important extracurricular achievement I had undertaken and achieved up until that point and it had a big impact on my career vector at an early age.

My participation in the Schoofs was a catalyst to getting into graduate engineering and business school. It gave me things to talk about in essays and it opened doors to faculty that may not have otherwise opened so readily had I just been a student with good grades. I think this is especially true for the MBA program, as they typically want to see work experience before admitting students.

It took a large goal of commercializing an invention, and broke it up into a shorter-term objective so I started down the path rather than giving up early-on, figuring it would be too enormous of an undertaking if I thought about it all at once. It gave me confidence that the project was worth 
pursuing and that I could succeed with it.

It stretched my skill base on many fronts: presenting a project, learning electrical 
engineering and embedded control principles and getting into wireless technologies to name a few. It gave me a totally new vantage point for observing and contemplating 
an entrepreneurial career track, which is 
otherwise not that visible as an under-graduate student pursuing an engineering degree. The prevailing wisdom is to get a job, and this offered an alternate pathway 
to consider.

Renee Meiller
1/30/2014