In 2001, the Northern Arizona Center for Entrepreneurship and Technologies (NACET) – then known as the Northern Arizona Technology & Business Incubator (NATBI) – was founded to help develop small tech start-ups in the Flagstaff area. That same year, Brad Van Orden began studying mechanical engineering at NAU.
Few could have foreseen that Van Orden would eventually go on to become one of NACET’s greatest success stories.
Brad Van Orden, founder of the now-acquired SunWind Solutions system and a current employee of Southwest Windpower, says that a project while attending the university sparked his interest in designing solar-wind systems.
“My fourth year, I came back and started working with [NAU engineering professor] Earl Duque, who was my academic advisor,” Van Orden said. “He kind of urged me to do this independent study project, where I would aim to design a hybrid solar-wind energy system for the Flying M ranch.”
During the independent study, Van Orden said he realized there was a niche that needed to be filled.
“The outcome of that project showed that the ranch should save about $75,000 over the lifetime of that renewable energy system,” Van Orden said. “So, kind of seeing that savings that they were able to produce and then seeing the work that I had done to be able to get there, I thought it would be nice if there was kind of an easy way for consumers to see if that would work for them, as well. So, that kind of launched the side project of actually creating a software application out of it. That took another three to four years to commercialize something.”
The result was a software package that provides customers looking to purchase a renewable energy system with information (based on geography and climate) on how efficient that said purchase would be.
“The end result is kind of a big picture view of what types of renewable energy systems make sense at your home,” Van Orden said.
At the encouragement of Duque, Van Orden applied to NACET in 2005. Russ Yelton, the current CEO/president of NACET, said the organization not only thought Van Orden’s system had marketable potential, but also thought Van Orden would be an ideal client.
“We work with about one out of 10 that come to us,” Yelton said. “We’re looking for someone who’s looking to get engaged and looking for the sort of things that we provide. And we like to say we’re looking for a specific person and place in time – somebody who is coachable and has a certain technology that is ready to come to market or just about ready. And we only work with them for a certain period of time – we expect them to graduate or, in Brad’s case, be acquired.”
Van Orden said his involvement with NACET gave him a big boost in getting his technology off the ground.
“I had a legal team at my disposal, business advisors, IT people, marketing – everyone I needed,” Van Orden said. “It was like I had a bigger company– I could kind of pull on these various legs of the company to help me excel. As far as NACET’s concerned, that’s been the biggest thing. Just having a place to come to work instead of getting out of bed and sitting at my desk – that’s a big help.”
Eventually, Van Orden’s software began to draw attention from larger renewable energy providers. Most notable was the Flagstaff-based Southwest Windpower, whose CEO, Dixon Thayer, approached Van Orden with an acquisition offer.
“I’ve been working with Southwest Windpower on and off for the last couple of years, going in and making presentations to their sales force,” Van Orden said. “Then, at one point, their new CEO, Dixon Thayer, decided that he wanted to take the company in a certain direction where he was able to kind of empower and educate their customers more. So, he started this search for a tool – he actually hadn’t seen my application, it had been other people at Southwest Windpower I had worked with – like what I had, but didn’t know it existed. Through the business incubator, he was introduced to me. After the first meeting where I showed it to him, he expressed an interest in acquiring the company, and about two weeks later, we had a contract.”
Thayer says Van Orden was the perfect addition to the company.
“I knew I was going to like Brad the first time I met him,” Thayer said. “He is the right balance of contemporary and experience, based on his age. At the same time, he shows a maturity for working within a business that usually takes a number of years to be able to master as well as he has.”
Thayer says NACET has helped Southwest Windpower a great deal, and he thinks the incubator is a great resource for both small start-ups and established businesses.
“I think it’s fabulous,” Thayer said. “I think every state and every community that is committed toward trying to make sure their industries don’t get rusty and moldy should have a business incubator like NACET.”
Van Orden says recent graduates of NAU looking to begin their own business ventures just need to make the decision to succeed.
“The big thing is that if you feel like you’re the type of person who would excel in an entrepreneurial environment, the only thing standing in your way is just pulling the trigger,” Van Orden said. “I truly believe that anybody who wants to succeed as an entrepreneur can, and all they have to do is make the decision to do it.” FBN