The rising tide of innovation raises all our boats
By Scott Meacham
Our state is proactively seeking new ways to boost scalable entrepreneurship. One sure path is to increase innovation. Innovation is a long game. The path begins with educating more young people in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). For 30 years, that’s been the mission of Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics (OSSM).
STEM opens doors for students like David Reynaldo Fuentez, the soon-to-be OSSM graduate who earned a full scholarship to Bowdoin College. And like so many aspects of entrepreneurship, it is a virtuous circle. Graduates of OSSM put that STEM education to work and impact the world in amazing ways.
Nathan Seidle, a 2000 graduate of OSSM and founder of SparkFun, puts it well. “The world needs more technical citizens, not because the world needs more electrical engineers, but because this world desperately needs leaders who can lead and govern with a footing in more of the technical layers of what makes our great civilization work.”
Nathan knows what he is talking about. He was one of those students.
“When I was in the ninth grade in Tulsa a friend of mine who lived down the street said, you should apply to this weird science school,” Nathan said. “OSSM was geared toward my style of thinking. It was a different speed, a different sort of concentration. While I did the best I could, I was in the middle of the pack the whole time I was there. OSSM does a good job of making smart kids humble. The students in my group learned there was more to life than an ACT score. All fifty-one students in my class were good friends.”
Nathan’s parents moved to Colorado while he was at OSSM. “Oklahoma has wonderful universities, but through circumstance, I had in-state tuition in Colorado.” He fell in love with the beauty of the Boulder region and has been there ever since.
Nathan loved rowing, and while in college, he set out to build electronics for the sport. He taught himself breadboarding, a way of prototyping electronic circuits. The device he was building needed a programmer which cost $150.
“I squeezed money out of stones to get that programmer,” Nathan said. “I was building circuits at home, moving that programmer around on my desk. I set it on a wire. There was a spark, smoke, and I had destroyed my programmer.”
Like the 20-year-old he was, Nathan jumped on the Internet, found a “horrible” website in Bulgaria, and took the risk of faxing them his credit card to buy a look-alike device for $20. “Whenever you have an oppressive regime,” he said, “people get very smart. The engineers in Bulgaria were some of the smartest people, scrappy and cost-effective. They had very good products but no idea of how to do business over the internet.”
Nathan had a lot of ideas. He began reselling programmers from that Bulgarian company. Nathan’s desktop explosion was the start (and the origin of the name) of SparkFun — a company that in 19 years has grown to more than one hundred employees and more than $25 million in revenue.
“Our customers are solving big hard problems,” Nathan said. “We make it so they can concentrate on their problems, and not on the electronic bits.”
SparkFun is an electronics company with no patents and no intellectual property.
“Our passion,” Nathan said, “is open source. Everything we know and learn we share with the rest of the world. It causes us to innovate. We are so much faster because of our open source roots.”
“I am immensely proud to be a high school graduate from Oklahoma and a program like OSSM. Similarly, it is great to hear of new programs like i2E to foster the next generation of geeks turned entrepreneurs. I would have benefited greatly from such a program.”
That theme of boosting innovation is analogous to training engineers and scientists at OSSM who sometimes (but not always, just ask Ryan Dennis at Linear Health Sciences) leave Oklahoma and go on to build fantastically successful companies like SparkFun. The rising tide of innovation wherever it happens, raises all our boats.
Scott Meacham CEO of i2E Inc., a nonprofit corporation that mentors many of the state’s technology-based startup companies. i2E receives state support from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology and is an integral part of Oklahoma’s Innovation Model. Contact Meacham at i2E_Comments@i2E.org.