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Pioneers of 2010

Leaders in the New North are taking action to lay the foundation of a better future

Story by Bob Warde

December 2010

There’s a theme to our Pioneers of 2010 honorees: all four have broken ground while moving forward in the areas of energy generation, politics and entrepreneurship.

The work of these companies and individuals is spot-on in terms of meeting needs and providing answers to those asking questions, sometimes while ruffling feathers and drawing criticism, but always helping pave the way of the future.

Power from the people

The University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh is assembling a portfolio of renewable energy projects that will serve to not only generate energy on the campus, but also serve as teaching tools for the university’s biology and environmental studies and science curriculum.

The latest project, for which ground was broken in September, is an anaerobic biodigester. Food waste from the food service building on campus, combined with corn stalks and soy bean vines from farmers as well as methane from the City of Oshkosh wastewater treatment plant, will be combined in a sort of extreme composter. The multi-million dollar equipment, purchased from German company BIOFerm Energy Systems, is the first of its kind in the United States.

UW-Oshkosh Vice Chancellor for Administrative Services Tom Sonnleitner set the project in motion in 2006 when he had a discussion about a comparatively simpler food digester that would use just campus food waste. Just as the university was preparing to pull the trigger on that project, a representative of BIOFerm proposed the more advanced biodigester, which uses a dry fermentation process.

“The process is essentially to move composting indoors. The facility will have air filters to remove any adverse smells, and the plant will be located in the part of the city that currently is home to the municipal sewage treatment plant and the city composting site,” Sonnleitner said.

The land on which the biodigester is being built was purchased by the UW-Oshkosh Foundation. “Sustainability is core to the university’s mission, so we are more than happy to provide support,” said Foundation President Arthur H. Rathjen.

Grants of $232,587 from Wisconsin Focus on Energy and $500,000 from the federal government helped finance construction of the biodigester.

By the end of 2011, the campus will have seven demonstrations of sustainability, including a geo-thermal heat field, solar thermal units to heat water for some buildings, a wind turbine, this digester, and a green roof. The digester is a special project, since it is the first one of its kind in the United States.

“The digester will be run by faculty and students and will essentially be a laboratory that will generate electricity. We’ll be able to use these as teaching tools to demonstrate how all these things work,” Sonnleitner said.

The biodigester doesn’t require much fuss, either. “It doesn’t have any moving parts, you just put the stuff in there and every 28 days you change out that particular cell. There is not a lot of manpower involved either,” he said.

Depending on how well the system performs, Sonnleitner expects the biodigester to produce between 5 and 10 percent of the campus’ electricity needs.

Ground was also broken last month in Green Bay where Oneida Seven Generation, a corporation owned by the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin, is constructing the first of its size pyrolysis gasification system, which uses solid waste and items that can’t be recycled – including pizza boxes, biomass, food containers and organic waste – to create combustible gas known as Syngas.

Once placed in the pyrolytic gasification chamber, gases are extracted, cleaned and used to power generation units, then placing electricity back to the grid. Remaining materials can be used to make carbon-based air filters or used as landfill cover.

 An Epiphany in serving entrepreneurs

Kevin Eismann is the son of a mechanic and a mom who sold Tupperware.

“They couldn’t get out of the rat race and certainly had issues working for the man. They instilled in me that if you had a chance to control your own destiny, that is a good thing in America,” Eismann said.

He strove for that and believes that when you have control over your destiny, life is more satisfying and fulfilling.

“I live that life and I try to help others achieve those values as well,” he said.

Over the years, Eismann has used that passion to start a number of businesses, including Epiphany Law, LLC in Appleton, which he founded in 2004 and specializes in business law. He gives a ready answer when asked why he named the firm Epiphany.

“I wanted something that would last longer than I would, and I wanted something that would say we do things a little differently here, and ‘Epiphany’ seems to embody it very well. People get the concept that there must be something a little different about the law firm, and while there are certain things that are the same, there are things that are different about the firm and Epiphany captures that,” he said.

Chief among those differences is how his lawyers interact with clients. “The amount of investment in processes, systems and technology as opposed to someone walking in with a yellow legal pad saying, ‘how can I help you?’ We’re driven toward identification of the factors of whatever the business issue is. What we use is a lot like a manufacturing process here. There are inputs and out the other side are documents achieving the goal. Really it’s investment in technology, and then investment in people, and the third piece is pricing. Most of our stuff is flat rate as opposed to hourly,” Eismann said.

Eismann is so passionate about helping entrepreneurs and advancing entrepreneurship that he has founded two groups to help them, Entrepreneur’s Anonymous, which he founded in 2009, and Angel Investors Anonymous, which he founded earlier this year.

Entrepreneurs Anonymous provides an environment where business owners can get together to learn best practices, knowledge and experience, and brainstorm in a safe environment with other entrepreneurs. Eismann said the goal of Angel Investors Anonymous is to lower the barrier to entry for entrepreneurs and provide access to potential angel investors in an effort to connect businesses that need funding with those investors.

Eismann has also written a book, “Business BluPrint: 8 Steps to Business Survival in Trying Times.”

Obviously Eismann walks the walk when it comes to entrepreneurship. Beyond the law firm, he owns investment properties, has a hand in helping several other entrepreneurs get off the ground, and he’s started a regional magazine, Nature’s Pathways.

“My father got cancer and was dying and doctors essentially gave up on him. My mom took what little money she had and was trying all these alternative medicines and natural and raw food, which I had never been exposed to in my life. It certainly increased both the quality of his life and longevity beyond what traditional medicine gave him as a prognosis. He did die, but he lived a longer, higher quality of life,” he said.

The magazine has done well, Eismann believes, because there isn’t much accessible information about the topic.
Eismann believes he will continue to serve his passion in new and interesting ways.

“Business has always been a passion. I’ve owned a lot of different businesses and supported a lot of businesses. It’s always been the thing personally for me. We’ve consistently tried to support the business community and that’s how we’ve approached all these other activities,” he said.

Blowin’ in the wind

Jeff Ehlers leads a management group that was first assembled when the four members worked for a Brunswick spinoff company named MotoTron Corp. In that role, the four individuals developed and manufactured electronic components for Mercury Marine products. Ehlers and his team had been with the operation when it was just a group of engineers developing internal products. In 2000, Ehlers’ team proposed creating MotoTron as a separate company that would develop those same components for other firms as well.

His group took it from no revenue and eight employees to 120 employees, revenue of $25 million and four locations across the United States. Eventually Brunswick sold MotoTron. Ehlers’ team wanted to buy it and continue to grow it, but the price grew too high. The group of four broke away from MotoTron and started their own company, which became Renewegy, the name coming from the mashing of the words ‘renewable energy.’

“We saw a lot of opportunity in electric-type systems that would use energy to power vehicles like forklifts, golf carts or whatever, but we also saw the other side of the coin where you use electric systems to generate energy, whether it’s wind power or biomass. We saw a lot of opportunity in the electrical renewable world,” Ehlers said.

Ehlers and his team – Dan Epstein, vice president and chief operating officer; Jeff Konopacki, vice president of research and development; and Rick Lulloff, director of mechatronics engineering – set about developing a 20 kilowatt wind turbine by designing the unit and creating a prototype in 2008. By 2009, two prototypes were built, which led to the manufacture of 10 pre-production units to be installed at actual sites to validate the design and performance of the units.

“In the first half of 2010 we built these 10 units. Two stayed with us and the other eight were sold as field-test units. The first two we tested for three months, and once we gained confidence in our design we started placing them out at customer sites like SCA Tissue, Orion Energy, Oshkosh Corp., and Bergstroms, which were all part of our field test,” Ehlers said.

All this set the stage for Renewegy to become a pioneer in the next wave of wind power that goes by several names: community wind, small wind or micro wind.

“We don’t plug into the wholesale grid like the big utility guys do. Our turbines plug into your facility behind the meter and generate electricity directly into your facility, and you end up buying less from the utility. There has been a lot of activity around distributed wind. In fact the American Wind Institute has just started a new division to promote it,” Ehlers said.

Large wind farms have garnered all the media attention and there are signs they may have peaked, with neighbors surrounding proposed sites objecting to noise and other byproducts of large wind developments. So one to five or more of the smaller turbines that generate power for one facility will be the way of the future for wind power generation.

Renewegy has been busy recently signing up distributors who understand local zoning and how to get permitting done. Though they have had inquiries from various international entities interested in buying their turbines, Ehlers is concentrating for now on the domestic market until capacity can be increased.

“Next year we’re targeting between 150 and 200 turbines across the nation. We want to make sure we don’t expand too quickly so we don’t trip and fall down,” Ehlers said.

Mr. Johnson goes to Washington

Ron Johnson is an entrepreneur and founder of Oshkosh plastics manufacturer Pacur. Though by all accounts, he is a quiet man with a strong work ethic and a penchant for giving back to the community, the goings on in Washington – including the last straw of the healthcare reform legislation ratified earlier this year – proved more than Johnson could stomach. He stood all he could and decided to act.

This past June, the Republican launched what was perceived by many as an unlikely campaign for U.S. Senate, taking on an 18-year, entrenched incumbent in Russ Feingold. Reflecting a “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore” mood of the electorate, Johnson went before the cameras to cut his own commercials. His common sense and calm sensibility quickly captured the notice of voters and gave him the lead in the polls virtually all the way through Nov. 2.

Johnson stood his ground through some difficult publicity. The media attempted to manufacture controversies, including a quote from Johnson taken out of context in which he said the science behind global warming was unproven and the cause of it could just as easily be sunspots. An additional story about Pacur using industrial revenue bonds – a program under which a company essentially borrows a state’s credit rating to borrow money for expansion at a lower interest rate – failed to gain traction.

Some even argued Johnson wasn’t qualified because he is simply an intelligent man who spent his life in the private sector. Johnson believes that citizens should serve their country by participating in government for a time and then returning to private life. It’s a system the founding fathers had in mind when they built the country. So Mr. Johnson goes to Washington.

This is only half the reason B2B named Johnson a Pioneer of 2010. The other half is the fact that he will be the first U.S. Senator to serve from the Fox Valley since Joseph McCarthy was a Wisconsin senator for 10 years from 1947 to 1957. 

So for more than a half century, Wisconsin values have been represented in Washington by those from the Milwaukee and Madison areas. You have to go back to 1893 to find the last time a U.S. Senator came from Oshkosh, and that was Philetus Sawyer, also a Republican businessman who had a desire to serve. Washington will once again get a taste of the values shared by many in what is now called the New North. Ron Johnson gets a chance to do what he can to stop the spending, backroom deals and other shenanigans that raised the ire of the electorate.