Helluva Entrepreneur: Armed with an education that emphasizes creative problem-solving and advancement, many Mines alumni have started their own businesses and found success in the startup world

by | Oct 3, 2017 | Fall 2017, Feature Stories, Lead Story | 0 comments

Nick Zustak ’17 was already flexing his entrepreneurial muscle as a student at Mines.

Instead of getting a typical student job to fund his “fun happy times at college,” the chemical engineering and computer science double major started his own online business in his sophomore year, creating patent drawings for law firms.

Now, Zustak is one of the founding members of FENIX.AI, a Boulder-based startup company that offers automated patent preparation at a fraction of the cost of the traditional patent process, using text recognition and artificial intelligence software.

“A lot of small businesses are at a disadvantage. They want to get a patent to protect what they’re doing, but what you normally do is search by word of mouth or Google and find a law firm. They’ll hear you out, but you’ll have to pay them $10,000,” Zustak said. “We can give you the full patent document, with claims, description and custom drawings, for $2,000 because we’ve got it so streamlined.”

The recent graduate joins a long history of entrepreneurship at Mines. From the school’s early days to today, Mines has continually adapted to society’s needs, preparing its students to blaze new trails in the research and business worlds.

That commitment is even more evident as Mines launches a new Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Director Werner Kuhr works with internal and external stakeholders to better integrate entrepreneurial thinking into the university’s educational programs, sponsored research and technology commercialization efforts.

Ask Mines alumni-entrepreneurs of all ages and they’re all likely to say the same thing: Not only did their Mines education give them a strong technical background in their chosen field, but it also equipped them with valuable skills for any entrepreneur—the ability to be resourceful, solve complex problems, work on a team and think on their feet.

“It’s not poetic, but you just have to take the jump and do it,” Zustak said. “Mines gave me a great technical background, but they really taught me to tackle open-ended problems and think from new perspectives. Even if I can solve the problem, I want to hear other people’s ideas.”

Not afraid to fail

Long before the internet made starting a business more accessible, Mines graduates were successfully forging ahead on their own.

When Lauren Evans ’82 graduated with a bachelor’s degree in geological engineering, she didn’t know she had a natural aptitude for business.

After a short stint with the U.S. Geological Survey, she went into the private sector and watched  as company after company got bought out. It was her parents who encouraged her to strike out on her own.

“I had just bought my house and was not happy at my job and my parents were visiting. My dad and I were sitting on the patio and he said, ‘You should start your own company. Your mother and I won’t let you lose the house,’” Evans said. “I went in and quit the next day. I didn’t have a business plan. I just had good support.”

Today, the environmental engineering consulting firm she started in her garage in 1993, Pinyon Environmental Inc., has 70 employees and has contributed its expertise to high-profile projects, including the Regional Transportation District’s Northwest Rail and Commuter Rail Maintenance Facility, the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden and the Twin Tunnels on Interstate 70.

Pinyon’s services include National Environmental Policy Act compliance and monitoring, storm water permitting, monitoring well sampling, threatened and endangered species surveys, construction dewatering and water quality projects.

“When I talk to people and they ask, ‘What should I do to try to position myself to start a company?’ I tell them you have to learn how to do everything,” she said. “You have to learn how to answer the phones. You have to learn how to put a report together. You have to do marketing, set up an accounting system. Unless you have an infusion of cash from someone, you’re going to be operating on a shoestring. You’re not going to be able to hire all the people you’re going to want to hire.”

As her company has grown, Evans has been able to bring people onto her team with complementary areas of expertise—including her college roommate from Mines, who had more management experience than Evans and could better oversee the company’s expanding human resources operations.

Being an entrepreneur also means being willing to risk failure, she said.

“You have to be able to bracket your risk. I didn’t want to lose my house, so I found a way to not do that,” Evans said. “You have to be willing to risk professional failure. You may have to go back and say, “I tried this. It didn’t work. Now I have to go find a job.’ Most entrepreneurs are more comfortable with that possibility of failing and taking some financial risk.”

It was her time at Mines that taught Evans some of the soft skills she relies on every day—how to solve problems, stay calm and not get overly stressed, she said.

“It’s funny, when I went to geology field camp, it was six weeks of camping. It was pretty long days and hard work,” Evans said.

“When I was working for other companies and working on the north slope of Alaska in winter, I remember several times thinking it’s still better than field camp. I’m warm. I have a light to work with. I’m not working by candlelight,” she said. “It does prepare you.”

Dedication to quality

It was during a packrafting trip in the deep Patagonia backcountry that Kevin Barthelemy ’13 first ate an oatmeal blend made from carefully selected local ingredients.

When he got back to the States, he connected with classmate Russell Drummond ’13, and the two headed out to camp in the Oregon wilderness. Barthelemy introduced Drummond to the oatmeal he brought back from South America, and the two realized there could be a market for an organic, high-protein oatmeal targeted specifically for backpackers.

Armed with a flavor they loved—chocolate peanut butter—and a dedication to putting quality ingredients into their product, they started looking at the piece that was going to be critical to the success of Roam Oatmeal—packaging.

“For backpackers, oatmeal cups don’t really work,” Drummond said, explaining that making the packaging as small and useful as possible for space-conscious backpackers was key.

They wanted their customers to be able to make the oatmeal in the slim package while out on the trail, so they had to find a material that could hold boiling water. They started tracking down a product with the functionality of a high-temperature plastic outer layer and a food-safe foil liner, landing on a company in Illinois.

“For our bags, there’s a spec sheet with a bunch of oxygen transfer numbers, and going back to freshman chemistry, some of those things come in handy,” Drummond said.

Through the process of designing the packaging and getting certified as an organic product, Drummond and Barthelemy used skills they learned while in several project-oriented classes at Mines, including senior design and EPICS. Being able to break down each problem and solve it through multiple steps has been a defining characteristic of the duo’s business.

“I also took economics and business classes at Mines and an entrepreneurship class that has been very useful,” Drummond said.

Roam Oatmeal officially launched in April 2017 and is currently sold in a few retail outlets in Portland, Oregon, and on Roam’s website. Drummond hopes to expand into Colorado—Denver, specifically—soon.

“With something like this, a slow rollout works better. It helps to take in feedback and learn from your process and have other people try it out. It’s easy to get feedback from friends and family, but it’s good to get it out in the world and have people who are paying for it give you feedback,” Drummond said.

Innovation at work

When Cooper Newby ’12 was working temp jobs, he noticed a lot of inefficiencies when it came to staffing.

Getting workers signed in took too long, and sometimes jobs were delayed or even cancelled. Newby noticed that during these down times, people would stand around on their phones, waiting for something to happen.

There was an opportunity to change the process and make the temp job experience more rewarding so Newby, who went on to Stanford University for a master’s degree, worked with fellow Cardinal Gino Rooney to create BlueCrew.

“We met in an entrepreneurship class and resonated on the issue of automating all of the manual processes that a staffing agency usually does. We wanted to build that community with a mobile app. From there, we struck a chord, got our first client and decided to take the leap and go into business after we graduated,” Newby said.

Newby hired his EPICS partner, Nick Jones ’13, as the first employee of BlueCrew because he knew they both had the Mines mindset and the ability to think about a problem analytically, break it down to its components and then work through those pieces until a solution materialized.

Prepared with their engineering, design and data backgrounds, the team created an algorithm and app that help employers find and reward the best employees.

Workers create a short profile on the app and have almost immediate access to jobs that range from janitorial
to concessions to warehouse work and more. BlueCrew offers incentives for employees to perform well on jobs
and employees and employers can rate each other, making
sure both parties have a
quality experience.

BlueCrew has been called the Uber for work, but Newby is quick to point out that what makes their company innovative is that employees are protected by traditional W-2 employment, which includes worker’s compensation and other benefits that allow employees to take care of their families while learning new job skills.

“We wanted to empower a large amount of people to ‘try before they buy’ and find the job that fits,” Newby said.

BlueCrew hopes to change the way people find and do work while striving toward the goal of making sure everyone has equal access to quality jobs while enjoying the securities of W-2 employment. The app is currently available in the San Francisco Bay area, Sacramento, Los Angeles and New York, with plans to launch nationwide.

“The most rewarding thing for me since joining BlueCrew is seeing the changes we’ve been able to make in our employee’s lives. We’ve put several million dollars of wages into people’s hands. Those are single mothers, veterans and others across the spectrum,” Jones said.

The trails Mines alumni blaze next remain to be seen. But given the school’s long history of encouraging entrepreneurship, more success stories are likely just around the bend.