President and Co-Founder,
Cambridge Polymer Group
BSChE ’88 (PhDChE ’93, MIT)
Each year, the College of Engineering recognizes outstanding alumni during Engineers’ Day—a celebration of engineers, held on Homecoming weekend. Stephen was among 10 engineers to receive awards in 2017 at an Oct. 20 banquet.
We honored him for foundational developments in polymeric materials design, testing and processing methods that have greatly impacted the biomedical, chemical and food industries.
Recently, we chatted with Stephen about everything from his memories as a student at UW-Madison to his career and his family. Here are his responses to some of our questions.
Why did you choose UW-Madison and an engineering major?
Most of my family went to UW going all the way back to my grandfather. But the main motivation for choosing chemical engineering was that I needed to pick a science discipline for my undergrad degree before I could move on to a graduate degree in veterinary science. My dad, who was also a chemical engineer, suggested ChE so I’d have other career options if I didn’t like veterinary science. And, since Wisconsin had one of the best undergrad ChE programs, it was a pretty easy decision.
Did you have a favorite engineering class?
I really liked the labs. I’m a hands-on person so I liked the classes with labs: polymer labs, chemistry labs, and engineering labs. It’s probably the motivation for building a lab at my company. I still work in the lab about once a week if I can, often to the chagrin to my employees.
What was your favorite place to hang out as a student?
Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry. At the time, it was over near the stadium and the engineering campus. My roommates and I didn’t have much money, but whenever we could scrape something together and had cause to celebrate (usually the completion of a really tough exam) we’d go to Dotty’s to celebrate. They had great burgers there.
Of what professional accomplishment are you most proud?
I say it was starting my company, Cambridge Polymer Group, with two partners. We did it without knowing anything about running a business. I always wonder: Had I actually known more about running a business, would I have actually done it? But we learned a lot over the years—from the successes, but also from the failures. We’re not a huge company, but I think we’ve got a really good reputation because we work really hard and we try to bring a really good product to our customers. And I’m very proud of that.
Who has played the greatest role in your achievements?
I’ve had an opportunity to interact with some really smart and experienced people throughout my career. I like to think I’ve learned a little bit from each one of them. I try to see what makes others successfully adapt some of those things. Some of the key mentors I’ve had would be my three business partners, Gareth McKinley, Gavin Braithwaite and Orhun Muratoglu. Also my father, a chemical engineer who gave me some very good advice throughout the years. And going back to my Wisconsin days, I had two close roommates, John Church and Rob Schumacher. Both of them have gone on to very successful careers and the two of them really helped me through the last couple years of the chemical engineering program. And in recent years, my wife, Denise, who is also a chemical engineer.
What advice would you give to current engineering students?
Take advantage of the full breadth of scope that the engineering program offers. There’s a tendency to focus too early on one particular area, but chemical engineers, for example, can specialize in a variety of subject matters. A lot of technology jobs these days really benefit from a broad range of experience. So, take advantage of the fact that you can take materials courses, transport courses and biology courses all within the framework of your major. Also take some non-engineering courses. Business classes are always beneficial. And take some classes for fun, as well; my favorites were the music classes.