I always knew I wanted to build the future.
After graduating from Boston University with a mechanical engineering degree and a Master’s in Business, I became the first full time hire at an emerging technology LED lighting company. The job was steady but soon proved boring. The promises of constant innovation had stalled out and management resorted to copying low end Chinese designs. The product fell by the wayside in a search for identity, purpose, and a few saved pennies on components.
I left the company, moving back to my seaside hometown of Mystic, Connecticut. Growing up on the ocean I knew the marine industry well. I wanted to build something amazing for a niche market, starting with low volume and high margin. I would need that margin because I wasn’t planning on raising funding.
Back at my parents’ house, I started building. First, on the kitchen table. I made sketches and built prototypes, surface soldering electronics on a homemade hot plate, getting scolded for singeing the kitchen table. I would etch my own circuit boards with ferric chloride, testing, destroying, painstakingly rebuilding, and retesting each design.
I was hand-building high end, leading-edge technology, underwater LED lights for the marine industry. My designs were such a departure from what currently existed, anyone who saw prototypes was left scratching their head.
I launched the business officially in 2013; I made money by packing lights into the back of my car and visiting shipyards, marinas, electronics shops — basically anyone who would give me the time of day. The marine industry is tough because it moves slowly, but I was there to shake things up. Needless to say, it was a struggle. I chose to forgo manufacturing reps, an industry standard, and hustle myself. I booked a meeting with the world’s largest marine retailer, West Marine, flew to their HQ and pitched the category manager in 20 minutes. They bit.
We quickly had to scale. I moved production from my college roommate’s basement to a 1200SF industrial bay. We were building everything in house and I had assembled a local, young team who wanted to be part of the vision. Passionate about product but still self-funding the company, the first two years were excruciatingly difficult. This startup wasn’t sexy. It was pure grind.
Always looking forward, we expanded the underwater technology to include waterproof utility lighting and waterproof horticulture lighting, and began getting development work from other clients. With a vertically integrated business model, we could design, engineer, prototype, and manufacture all under one roof. We built the first few hundred prototype LED lights for Grove Labs (30 under 30 2015), completed contracts for the US Coast Guard, and were selling a diverse product line through worldwide distributors. Helping to sustainably grow food using our lights and also save lives at sea through the design and development of USCG rescue strobes were tangible problems we were solving through our technologies.
I knew we had to keep growing and I continuously reinvested every earned dollar back into the business. By having everything we needed in house, we were prepared to explore new markets and opportunities; we could test the waters with minimal risk . In early 2015, we moved into a 6,000SF space in order to furnish more capacity and expand our capabilities.
This year, Miami-based Frost Science came calling with what would be our biggest client job to date. They wanted us to build custom underwater lighting arrays to grow coral, an incredibly massive and nuanced project that nearly put us in the ground. My team banded together, designing and building the world’s first and only underwater lighting system for growing coral, installed in September 2016. Frost Science’s research, along with our lighting, could help save the rapidly diminishing coral reefs across the world.
I want to reinvent American business and manufacturing by focusing on the product and the customer, not just the bottom line. We can do this here, in America, by being lean and intelligent. Moving forward, I am compartmentalizing the business model to make it scalable. We are still very much vertically integrated and I am constantly investing in new technologies that will allow us to enter new markets. It is still a daily struggle, but when I read about Thomas Edison and George Eastman and An Wang and other great visionaries who executed their vision, I know it can be done. One day I hope to add my name to the list.