Mike Casper says participating in the Innovation Days competition as a student stoked his entrepreneurial spirit and inspired him to transform a student design project into a successful hardware technology startup.
As an undergrad, Casper and his teammates won a $7,000 Schoofs Prize in 2004 for inventing the “Ice Light,” a replaceable edge-lighted film that creates illuminated images such as logos or advertising within the ice of hockey arenas.
“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,” says Casper, a native of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.
After graduating with his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a certificate in business in 2004, Casper became a consultant with ZS Associates in Chicago, while continuing to pursue the illumination technology in partnership with other UW-Madison grads.
To demonstrate the technology, their first company, BriteIce Technologies, installed its lighting system into the Kohl Center, illuminating a motion “W” behind each hockey goal. The Kohl Center installation was a success, and the team stayed together to develop the technology further.
In 2008, Casper and the team turned BriteIce into FLEx Lighting, a hardware technology startup that produces ultra-thin optical films. The FLEx technology evolved from the team’s 2004 Innovation Days entry and today provides previously unachievable levels of display performance and power savings in electronic devices. Casper developed business plans and led investor presentations to raise $8 million in financing, and the company now employs more than 15 people in a 13,000-square-foot facility in downtown Chicago. FLEx has 12 granted patents and over 60 pending patents on its illuminated optical film technology.
In 2012, Casper received an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He has returned to UW-Madison to serve as a judge for the Innovation Days competition, awarding startup prize money to students by evaluating the technical novelty and market potential of new inventions. In his spare time, he is a professional mentor for the Science, Engineering and Entrepreneurship program at Nettelhorst School, teaching and guiding eighth-grade students through the product development process.
He also coaches youth baseball and football and has competed in the Ironman triathlon and various marathons. Casper lives in Chicago with his wife, Julie, and their children, Michael, 7, Madison, 3, and they are expecting a third child in October.