Leaders & Influencers: Brad James

In our continuing series on Wisconsin Leaders & Influencers, we chat with Brad James, President & CEO of Beepods, which promotes and implements sustainable beekeeping practices by providing education and resources to individuals, businesses, and organizations.

Tell us a little bit about what made you decide to join Beepods as President & CEO.

Brad JamesBeepods was founded in 2009 and has gone through a huge amount of change since then. I was brought on a few years ago; the company had a great concept and great products, but it wasn’t moving forward. At the time, I was working for a company that specialized in taking startups to the next level and Beepods was one of our clients. My goal since joining the company has been to build it the right way, not just in terms of making money, but to make a social and environmental impact from top to bottom. We source as many of our products and materials as possible from U.S. manufacturers (specifically, those from Wisconsin), and work with locally minded and eco-minded companies. We have employed local artisans and individuals with visual impairments. This is part of our strategy to build economic equity across all layers of the company and to promote sustainability in more than just the “green” sense of the word.

What successes have you seen? Any recent initiatives?

As a company, we’re cash positive, which is always fun. We’ve solidified some distributors in different niches, which is big. We have new inspection processes and have rounded out and added to our product offering. When I came on, Beepods was more or less a concept. Now it’s a feasible product with services and tools people are using.

Lately we’re going through an entire update of our software and back end systems. We’ll have a new look to our website soon, and we’re launching more digital products so people can dip their toes into beekeeping, in a way that’s easy and affordable to access. And we’re ramping up to open a round of fundraising, so lots going on.

What are some common misconceptions people have about beekeeping?

When most people think about beekeeping, they think of white boxes. That is one way of beekeeping, but it’s not the only way. We try to focus on that with our messaging. The usual way of beekeeping isn’t bad, but there are certainly other ways to do it, so Beepods is about educating and awareness as much as it is about selling products.

Talk about your clients and your work with schools.

Anywhere you can think of that you might be able to put a beehive, we’ve probably done it.  With schools, we’re particularly interested in educating the next generation. We can provide beekeeping curriculum for teachers ranging in subjects from math and science to art and engineering. We work with FabLabs and MakerSpaces on tech and computing and in outdoor classrooms to enable and empower teachers to use those spaces as a type of living lab. (Science experiments don’t always need to happen at a desk.) We have tools for kids at every level, and we support educators with tools, techniques, and bee viewers. We really want to make it possible for all people—even those who may be afraid—to interact with bees.

What is the overall health of bees and beekeeping, and where do you see opportunities to help?

Wisconsin is one of the top 10 honey-producing states, yet we sustain the highest colony collapses and die-offs. It’s a complicated problem—no one thing is causing these collapses and die-offs. Part of the problem is that due to the long tradition of “white box beekeeping,” there’s no central pool of data for us to use to measure the success of various beekeeping techniques. (As opposed to an agricultural industry like dairy farming, where we’ve been collecting data from dairy cows for decades.) We’ve only been collecting this type of data for honey bees in the last 10-15 years, so we’re relatively far behind in research for the most important domesticated animal. We’re working with beekeepers to collect and aggregate data around global geolocations so we can get a better picture of what’s happening. Beekeepers use the same training, techniques, and tools, but they’re not taking variables into consideration when collecting data.

 Why is Wisconsin important to beekeeping (and vice versa)?

Wisconsin was built on farming and manufacturing, and we try to capitalize on those industries, along with technology. Everything we need to run a meaningful company, we can do here in Wisconsin. People in Wisconsin understand agriculture, where food comes from, and the role of bees in that process. There are still manufacturers in Wisconsin; they have survived outsourcing. Understanding things like how batch manufacturing is important to smaller businesses has helped me see how important the local economy can be.

Other industries and ideals here are also important to our business, in their own way. Tech, slow food, slow money, general Wisconsin friendliness. We’re not a one-trick pony so ours is a difficult business to build. I think we can be the Nike of beekeeping in the U.S., but it’s going to take time.



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Leaders & Influencers: Justin Reed

In our continuing series on Leaders & Influencers, we chat with Dr. Justin Reed, co-founder and CEO of C-Motive, a manufacturer of next-generation electric motors and generators.

What made you decide to found C-Motive?

Justin Reed(Co-founder) Dr. Dan Ludois and I met in the Electrical Engineering department at UW-Madison while in graduate school, and from the very beginning of our thinking about this business, Dan was seeing a big push for wireless power transfer—charging your cell phone or a car without wires, for example. We wanted to apply the idea of wireless power transfer inside an electric motor and eventually set our sights on an electrostatic motor. C-Motive grew out of that idea and we founded the company, along with Micah Erickson, in 2012.

We started with the technology. We knew what was possible with high-performance machines in the marketplace and saw the electrostatic motor as a totally different way of doing the same thing. Our C-Machine doesn’t use steel, copper coils, or rare-earth magnet materials. Instead, the C-Machine is lightweight and uses different lightweight metals. It operates especially well at low speeds, while standard electric motors work well at high speeds. Our motor eliminates large amounts of wiring and uses smaller cables because of the way it’s run.

How did you use the startup/entrepreneurial community here in Madison to help you get started?

We’ve participated in a number of programs and opportunities through the UW Business School. In 2009, we presented at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurial Bootcamp (WEB) while we were in graduate school, and later participated in the G. Steven Burrill Business Plan Competition, among others. In 2012 we graduated from the Weinert Applied Ventures in Entrepreneurship (WAVE) class, an applied practicum in starting and growing entrepreneurial businesses. We pitched C-Motive at the conclusion of the course and received a very substantial investment.

Are there challenges to being a manufacturing startup in a SaaS-focused environment?

We’re not a typical Madison startup, that’s for sure. And we’re not really typical for Wisconsin, either. I can count on one hand the number of electric motor start-ups there are in the United States. We did win second place in the 2012 Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest, which generated some good interest from the public and the State of Wisconsin. Wisconsin has a strong history of manufacturing, but it’s been in decline, so there are some possibilities for applications here.

Fundraising has been difficult for us, and because we’re in a unique space, it’s not easy to find investors. Having more potential investment in the advanced manufacturing space would be very helpful. Most of our funding at this point has come through the state or federal government. We earned a Phase 1 SBIR grant in 2014 and a Phase 2 grant in 2015 from the NSF. For each of those, we also received matching funding from Center for Technology Commercialization (CTC) state funding. And we continue to apply for more grants, but hardware is expensive and takes time, so ideally we’d have a mix of grants and investments.

Any books, blogs, or podcasts you reference for your business?

I’m in a constant state of learning, and have gotten more intent in self-learning since starting C-Motive. I read a few books when we were starting out, but there’s not much in terms of content for our particular type of business. I listen to a lot of podcasts on general entrepreneurship and self-improvement of skills. There are a number of good blogs that are specific to hardware startups, but many of those hardware startups, like Fitbit, aren’t applicable to us. We’re much more industrial and not a consumer device, but there are still bits of information I can glean from those kinds of hardware startups. I learn a lot from our board of directors, too, which includes entrepreneurs.

What’s next for C-Motive?

We are still in the R&D phase of the C-Machine and have 18 months left to do that per our NSF grant. We’re not doing a ton of marketing yet, but our goal is to create the world’s most torque-dense and powerful electrostatic motor. We’re excited to have a product ready for testing and validation.

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