Unique inventions sparked by local electronics company

2:15 PM, Apr 22, 2010   |    comments
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"We show people that electronics don't have to be scary," Nathan Seidle, the CEO and Founder of Sparkfun explained.

The Boulder-based company provides electronic components and tutorials for people who want to build gadgets of their own.

"We like to educate people," Seidle said. "We try to give them the tools they need to get going [on a project]. We try to share as much information about the things we've learned about the pitfalls and the failures we've had over the years so the customers and users can learn from our mistakes."

The company looks for the newest and coolest electronic inventions and then works to provide them in a format customers can use at home.

"The electronics we sell are made a little bit bigger so people can then put different pieces together and then build the prototype or the project that they're going for. If that really takes off and they really want to reduce it down then that's where the engineering comes in to really scale that down to much smaller size," Seidle explained.

Sparkfun then encourages customers to use their imagination to find new uses for those components, offering them tips for what the parts and pieces can do and forums to encourage collaboration and improvements.

"It's a big community of knowledge and everybody is sharing," Sparkfun employee Pete Lewis said. "It's kind of a new revolution which is: here is our product and now you can have all the work that we put into designing it and tweak it and do whatever you want with it."

The company, however, never limits their customer's creativity.

"We find cool products that we think are interesting to us as engineers, but we never try to box it in to a certain use. We never say, 'Our products have to be used for this.' Because of that, we've seen some really amazing outcomes," Seidle said.

From systems to help alert deaf cooks when the microwave timer ends to a glove that can help a victim of an avalanche figure out which way is up, Sparkfun customers have created some ingenious inventions.

"Of course, then there's the flame throwing trampoline," Seidle added.

A distance sensor made by Sparkfun measured how far the trampoline dipped on each jump, triggering a portioned flame on a nearby flame thrower.

After that, one might think the sky is the limit- but it is not. Sparkfun's components are being used to test rockets for Copenhagen Suborbitals; a project which aims at sending a person into space, without the support of an agency like NASA.

"We are small part of the enabling crew that is allowing them to live out this wild dream of getting a man into space," Seidle said.

The company's customers are just as varied as the projects they create. They certainly don't fit the stereotypes of the pocket protector-wearing nerds.

"Geek has gotten a new kind of spin on it," Seidle said.

"As soon as we say our customers are hobbyist or electronic enthusiasts, we get the e-mail from the base jumper that used our electronics to monitor what happened when his parachute opened or we get an e-mail from an artist that is building a giant collaborative piece for a new installation," he explained.

"We like to see the creative users: the artists, the musicians coming to create some really new ideas and pushing the limits of the field," Seidle added.

That culture is also reflected at the company's headquarters in Boulder. Dogs run around the building and on breaks employees fly remote control airplanes.

"When I started this company I did not take the class at CU that tells you how to run a company, so as we grew from one person to five people to 10 people we started to enact policies to create a workplace where we wanted to work. There are a lot of skateboards, a lot of dogs and a lot of loud music, but it seems to be a pretty good place to work," Seidle said.

He must be doing something right. The company has grown every year since it was founded in 2003, even during the worst of the recession. 

Sparkfun was recently selected as one of the 50 Colorado Companies to Watch by the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade. Every Thursday 9NEWS reports about another company, highlighting its success in this difficult economy.

To see those stories, visit http://www.9news.com/life/programming/shows/mornings/ctw/.

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