STEM leader Justin Shaw has turned his passions for math and electronics into a lucrative startup business that also gives back to the community by providing thousands of dollars each year in grant funding to young entrepreneurs. Wyolum has become profitable through innovative tech products designed in an open source environment. Investing profit into young entrepreneur endeavors makes Wyolum a stand out in its support of STEM.
WashingtonExec: Describe your background and tell us about Wyolum, the company you cofounded and its unique business structure.
Justin Shaw: Growing up in Wyoming, I always thought I’d be a musician. I started playing the violin in the second grade and kept music as a big part of my life through high school. This earned me a full ride scholarship to the University of Wyoming, where I briefly majored in viola performance and after several major changes, ended up studying pure math.
The more math I learned the better it got. Many people confuse Mathematics with computation. This can be seen in many math classes where the teacher provides an algorithm with steps A, B, C, a few examples, and the students are expected to repeat the steps on similar problems with only the numbers changed. That is not math; it’s computation – a great skill to have, but not Mathematics. One college professor used to tell us that “a mathematician is not someone who knows how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide. A mathematician is someone who knows when to add, subtract, multiply, and divide.”
After winning an argument with a professor regarding a test question, he asked me where I was going to graduate school. The thought had never occurred to me. He informed me I could earn $1000 per month for going to grad school, which was $200 per month more than I earned laboring outside in the hot sun or freezing in the cold Wyoming winters. I enthusiastically accepted his offer. My wife Amy and I were beginning to raise our first daughter Emily when I received a masters degree in Mathematics and launched into a career working with satellites.
My foot in the door was through programming. As a mathematician, I had considered myself to be above programming all through school. When I actually started programming in earnest, I fell in love with it. Programming is like self executing mathematical theorems, and the proof is immediately apparent in the execution. Eventually I began to discover the limitations of desktop programming, feeling trapped in the CPU and on the 2D display. I needed to interact with the physical world.
So I built a tracking telescope mount from designs published by Mel Bartel online. The design was free and open, at a time when the “Open Hardware” label did not yet exist. The amazing online community of telescope enthusiasts learning and helping each other made a big impact on me.
Tinkering in electronics projects, I published a couple of my own tutorials online. Shortly after, I was surprised to find in the mail a printed circuit board made from one of my tutorials. Anool Mahidharia was the circuit board maker and an Electrical Engineer in India. We quickly discovered our complementary skill sets and now share CEO duties. He knows electronics and I can program. Anool was always very generous with his time and other resources, so I kept close track of our finances. This proved useful when our nascent company started to grow and our projects began to make money.
WyoLum does have a unique business structure. We leverage Open Hardware, similar to the Open Software movement, to solve real world problems. People would come out of the woodwork and volunteer online to help with projects. We naturally formed teams to solve problems and make products. The goal of each project was to learn, have fun, and make something cool. When our project, ClockTHREEjr, started making a profit, we had to figure out an equitable way to distribute the spoils of our labor. What we came up with is called WyoLum Sweat Equity. Half of all profits go back to WyoLum in order to fund future projects; the other half is divided among the contributing team members according to the value of their labors – not the time. This distribution is decided among the team members and we have not had a dispute yet. Members can choose to contribute their earnings back to WyoLum or take them in cash. This allows contributors to earn a stake in WyoLum with no cash upfront.
“Let’s face it, as a planet, we have some tough challenges: climate change, growing population, war, and all of the horrors that accompany these things. These problems are too big for any one company or nation to solve alone.”
WashingtonExec: Why focus on Open Source Hardware?
Justin Shaw: As a company we rely on Open Hardware. We simply could not learn on our own how to use the myriad parts and components out there to build anything useful. Open Hardware products do more than simply solve a problem. They teach you how to solve a problem and you are free to use that solution in your own designs. Some Open Hardware companies like WyoLum, SparkFun and Adafruit also provide tutorials to make the learning process even easier than reading a electrical schematic and raw source code. We owe it to the Open Hardware community to give back the designs we make that are often aggregates or improvements of other designs. We love the teaching and learning community that Open Hardware provides and see no need to change it.
Let’s face it, as a planet, we have some tough challenges: climate change, growing population, war, and all of the horrors that accompany these things. These problems are too big for any one company or nation to solve alone. We will have to figure out ways to collaborate and share our solutions to the small problems in order to be able to tackle the larger problems. Open Hardware companies are showing the world how we can work together while making a profit.
From the humble beginnings of a blinking LED, Open Hardware has grown into development of the CERN super conducting super collider.
WashingtonExec: Although WyoLum is not a large corporation, it provides thousands of dollars in grant funding to young STEM entrepreneurs. Explain more about these grants.
Justin Shaw: Our stated mission is to “promote Open Hardware.” Many small projects are out there that need only a small financial nudge to succeed. The grants are too small to pay anyone’s salary, but are large enough to buy hardware, or print circuit boards, or to purchase tools. The grant winners actually end up making the much larger investment of time. While not limited to students, all of the grant winners so far have been college or graduate students. The Open Hardware vocabulary grows with each successful design, so we all benefit from their success.
“WyoLum’s Open Hardware contributions, grants, classes, and donations are a visible indication that we are a company with motives beyond monetary profit. We are unique in many ways, and people notice.”
WashingtonExec: There seems to be no return on investment giving away STEM grants, so why provide them?
Justin Shaw: Actually there is a great return on investment. WyoLum gross revenue has doubled each year since our inception. We attribute that growth, in part, because people like to feel good about the companies they support. WyoLum’s Open Hardware contributions, grants, classes, and donations are a visible indication that we are a company with motives beyond monetary profit. We are unique in many ways, and people notice.
WashingtonExec: What are a few of the best products Wyolum has created and why make innovative products?
Justin Shaw: Our newest product is called the BADGEr_v4. This is a miniature E-Reader like Amazon’s Kindle that can display an image with low power and maintain that image for months with no power at all. We’ve employed them as conference badges where attendees used them to display personal information, company logos or the conference schedule. We even had an old fashioned photo booth set up to take pictures and upload them to the BADGEr. People are also buying BADGEr_v4 all over the world to use in place of business cards.
We have also enjoyed great success with one of our projects led by our Boston affiliate Kevin Osborn called the AlaMode. The AlaMode is a daughter card to the Raspberry Pi, a $35 single board computer. The AlaMode extends the Raspberry Pi to allow it to read sensors and control motors. The Raspberry Pi AlaMode combination is probably the easiest and least expensive way to connect the real world to the internet.
Our first great success is called ClockTHREEjr. This is a clock that displays the time in words.
Our initial goal was to be able to enjoy our expensive hobby without impacting our personal finances. We found out this hobby had real economic consequences and realized those consequences, in the form of profit, could cascade into a much larger endeavor. We’ve been doubling down on WyoLum ever since.
“Our initial goal was to be able to enjoy our expensive hobby without impacting our personal finances. We found out this hobby had real economic consequences and realized those consequences, in the form of profit, could cascade into a much larger endeavor. We’ve been doubling down on WyoLum ever since.”
Washington Exec: Wyolum success is based on creative tech innovation through open source collaboration and contributions to STEM. How can other organizations find success through promoting STEM?
Justin Shaw: As the development cycle tightens, companies and individuals will have to reeducate and reinvent themselves every few years. Keeping a close relationship with the schools, the source of future innovation, is a mutually beneficial way to ensure a bright tomorrow.
WashingtonExec is conducting interviews with area executives who have contributed to STEM and want to share their insights. If you or someone you know has inspired young people in STEM, contact Julie Reiss at email@example.com.