Mike GeierCo-Founder & Chief Technology Officer, AMPY
"Refining a technology into a form that someone is going to integrate into their lives [is] where we took the class and ran with it. We turned it into a Kickstarter and now product."
Mike Geier had his eye on the intersection of science and business long before he enrolled in The Graduate School at Northwestern. After finishing his undergraduate studies in geoscience at UC Berkeley, Geier went on to work at a startup company that manufactured batteries for three years. During his time there he witnessed his bosses balancing PhD studies and building a company. He thought he could do the same.
When searching for schools, Northwestern stood out for its renowned science programs and its success in the commercialization of research through courses like NUvention and those offered under Kellogg's Management for Scientists and Engineers Certificate.
The opportunity to do world-class research while working on his own idea for a startup was the tipping point in Geier's decision to pursue a graduate degree at Northwestern. "Not only would I gain a strong technical background, but [I'd] also look at the commercialization and business side of technology," he said.
Fast forward to fall of 2012 and Mike was in his second year of PhD studies in Material Science and Engineering at Northwestern. He decided to partner with Tejas Shastry and Alexander Smith, peers from his department, for a project in the NUvention: Energy course. About a month into the course, they gravitated toward the task of capturing the energy of motion.
"The obvious question then is, 'How much energy can we capture and what could you do with it?'" Geier said. "Basically we ended up deciding we could harness enough energy to charge a phone at some rate."
Once settled on their idea, Geier and his teammates set out in the course engaging potential customers and designing prototypes for their dream product. They found that past attempts at solving the smartphone battery life issue with kinetic energy failed because of inconvenience caused by bulky form factors.
"Refining a technology into a form that someone is going to integrate into their lives [is] where we took the class and ran with it," Geier said. "We turned it into a Kickstarter and now product."
When you first started coming up with an idea, did you actually think it would progress beyond the class? At what point did it seem like you could really make a business?
During the class we were thinking we probably won't go after the class. But, after we finished [the class] Professor Werwath and Marasco said: "You have to keep going. Why don't you apply for these business competitions? "
When we ran the Kickstarter and hit our goal, that's when it was like, "This is now a company. Now we have to build product and finish it."
How's it going?
The product that we're delivering compared to what we showed in the video is significantly better. I think people will appreciate that this looks like a finished product, not something we made in our garage. If you ask anyone in hardware, there's no such thing as an easy product to make.
What has been you biggest lesson in entrepreneurship?
If you're going to operate in a consumer-focused product company, you have to go engage them; you have to get feedback. You have to do trials to see how people react before dumping all your effort into building this product and finding out that no one wants it.
Also, the network you have is really important to the success of the company and the supply chain. A lot of things we've gotten, we would not have had them if we weren't here at Northwestern, if we weren't working with Farley with their connections to energy trusts—and energy trusts' connections to industry. If we didn't have these resources, this would have been much harder if not impossible.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.