Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Focus on the Fellows: Tom McKinnon

Tom McKinnon, Professor Emeritus at the Colorado School of Mines and Director of InventWorks

In our second installment of Focus on the Fellows, we highlight Tom McKinnon, managing director of InventWorks Inc. and Professor Emeritus at Colorado School of Mines.  Tom has followed a fascinating career path that has included work at NREL (when it was the Solar Energy Research Institute); TDA Research, a small contract research company; University of Colorado; Colorado School of Mines, researching combustion biofuels, “green” fire suppression, and new materials for lithium batteries; Fullerene Sciences Inc., a nanomaterials company; Novare Biofuels; and Boulder ElectroRide, which made high-performance electric motorcycles.  Tom even has experience on the legislative side from when he cofounded a bill for the Colorado ballot to place a small carbon tax on natural gas.

So how did Tom find his way to the field of cleantech?  Energy had been on Tom’s mind for quite some time, and the field of alternative energy was of particular interest to him but he wasn’t sure where to start.  Fate seemed to intervene when he went to a job interview in Boston during his senior year at Cornell University and shared a cab with a man who would eventually become his boss at SERI.  After a few years at SERI, he went east to get his PhD in Chemical Engineering at MIT, researching combustion, and then continued to follow a path in research and energy.

Focus on the Fellows: Tony Formby

Tony Formby, cofounder of Squirrel POS Systems and angel investor

For the third edition of our Focus on the Fellows we are highlighting Tony Formby, a Vancouver, B.C. native who has lived throughout North America and played an instrumental role in the development of touch screen user interface technology before becoming an angel investor, focusing the majority of his attention on cleantech.

Tony started his professional life in Ottawa, working as an aid to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General.  After five years, he realized he had become jaded in his views and wanted different career opportunities.  So in his late twenties he moved back to Vancouver, teamed up with a partner, and entered into the restaurant business, owning two restaurants and running a third on behalf of the owners.  During the recession of 1980, the restaurant industry was hit hard and only one of Tony’s restaurants survived the tumult. Around this time Tony and his partner decided to move into the computerization of restaurant point of sales (POS) systems.  In 1985 they commercialized Squirrel Systems, the first PC-based, touch-screen user interface.  Today, Squirrel POS systems is used by heavyweights such as Apple, Holiday Inn, and Applebee’s.

After significant success with Squirrel Systems, Tony and his partner decided to sell the company and as Tony says, “I saw the opportunity to integrate flat panel display touch screens and customized mother boards with various controllers built into them to create a low profile computer system that could be used in a multitude of process control scenarios, for instance on factory floors or at hotel front desks.”  Truly an entrepreneur, Tony worked from home, had no employees, and created contracts with companies that needed products designed for them and then contracted out to a team of engineers and a manufacturer that shipped the product directly to the end user.

Sam Jaffe: Thoughts on the Cleantech Fellows Institute

Sam Jaffe is one of the Cleantech Fellows Institute’s invaluable Department Heads, leading the Storage Technologies curriculum. We asked Sam to share his thoughts about the program.

Your background is in journalism with publications such as Bloomberg and Business Week.   What brought you into the cleantech arena?

I went into journalism because it’s a great way to witness history. However, in the end, your role as a journalist is as an observer, not as a prime mover of change. I went into cleantech because I felt that making energy clean and cheap is the fundamental challenge of my generation and I wanted to be part of it–as an actor, not as an observer.

You’ve worked with some of the premier energy and cleantech research firms.  Has your research and work with these firms led you to have any industry “ah-ha” moments that you can share?

As a science journalist, I was always interviewing fascinating people who made significant discoveries. But when I asked them when their breakthrough would be turned into a product, the answer was always the same: “In five years.” I wanted to find out what was so magical about five years. The “ah-ha” moments have usually been when I’ve had a chance to peek inside the screen and find out that “five years” is usually short-hand for “this will never work, but we’re going to milk it for as much capital and prestige as we can for as long as we can”. When a concept described in a scientific paper really, really works and solves a significant business problem, it usually finds its way to market much earlier than five years. The majority of cleantech concepts out there, however, simply don’t work as promised. There might be published data and a team of people with great C.V.’s, but the data is usually wrong.