Universities partner to turn ideas on napkins into thriving companies
On the fourth floor of Boise State University’s College of Engineering building is an organization that doesn’t go by any one name. It all depends on who you ask.
“Some people think of us as the guys that help in food safety… some think we’re the guys that design products and do prototypes, others think we’re the ‘Lean guys’,” says Bill Mullane, the marketing manager and member of the Growth and Innovation team at TechHelp.
Part of a nationwide manufacturing extension, TechHelp is a team of experts available to educate and assist manufacturers, food processors and inventors as they build and grow businesses in Idaho. Funded by the U.S. Department of Commerce and a partnership with all three state universities — Boise State, University of Idaho and Idaho State — its mission is to “help manufacturers grow and compete more efficiently and profitably.”
One of those companies was Rekluse Motor Sports, a company that was front and center during President Barack Obama’s Boise visit in 2015.
But more than decade ago it was just Rekluse’s founder Al Youngwerth, a consultant working for Hewlett-Packard, who came to TechHelp with an idea for a anti-stall clutch for motorcycles and dirt bikes.
“He was literally the guy with the idea on a napkin,” Bill says. TechHelp set Al up with a team of students to help design a 3D model and prototype — just enough to get the
ball wheels rolling.
And Al did…
“Here we are, twelve years later, multiple products. That student [Al worked with] is now his head of research and design… Fifty employees… $60 to $70 million in sales, in multiple countries… They’re like our poster child,” Bill says.
“If we can help something like [Rekluse Motor Sports] happen, that’s our nirvana.”
TechHelp offers itself as a resource for up-and-coming companies as well as established ones — offering classes on anything from manufacturing methodologies like Lean, Just-in-time delivery, Six Sigma to food safety courses for companies like Simplot and Chobani.
Beyond that, TechHelp’s team of experts are connecting people with the tools and resources they need to build a business.
Need a 3D model or help creating a prototype? TechHelp pairs inventors with a team of engineering students to help do just that. “If you had an idea, I could send you over there right now and it’d be like working with a business — our students are employees — and you’re going to get an evaluation of your idea and a scope of work before spending a penny,” Bill says proudly.
Another success story is In the Ditch Towing, a line of easy to use, safer towing products out of Mountain Home, Idaho. Its founder, Chuck Ceccarelli, had the idea for a different kind of towing mechanism, one that didn’t block traffic. Chuck went to TechHelp with ideas.
“Within an hour [the students] had drawings and sketches and load bearings and materials.”
And another: Melni Connectors, a device for connecting electrical wires without the need of tools. It’s a “Chinese finger trap” for the electrical industry. Its owner, Mark Melni, was featured on Shark Tank in 2015.
All these companies Bill and the TechHelp team are proud to have a hand in helping. “We have a policy called ‘no wrong door’,” Bill says, “You come here and you need something else, we’ll direct you.”
“We’re not that big, but we have these really strong partnerships.”
Those partnerships not only include government organizations like the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Labor, but also private companies with a presence in Idaho, including Zions Bank, Simplot, US Bank, Holland and Hart, UPS and more.
“We all know each other on a first name basis,” Bill says, “It’s nice in Idaho, we’re small enough to get to know people and get access to people. And you can get things done. That’s pretty cool.”
“Everybody talks about working collaboratively and knocking down silos — and we actually do it, we have to, because that’s our model. We don’t have any choice.”