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?
(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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