U. grads' Salt Lake City startup develops practical power solutions
Paul Slusser and David Toledo are power mad.
Combining heat, water and a bit of engineering savvy, the University of Utah graduates developed a camping pot that, via thermoelectricity, generates enough power to quickly charge everyday USB devices as it boils water. What grew out of primitive experiments conducted in the duo's Sugar House basement is now Power Practical, the Salt Lake City startup with a simple goal.
"Firstly, it's bringing power to the people," Toledo said. "That's what we're all about."
It took a long time and a few diversions for that focus to fully materialize. As materials-science engineering students working together in various lab settings, Slusser and Toledo had their sights on power early on. Though their primary focus then was solar, Toledo began to dabble in thermoelectrics, and it didn't take much to persuade Slusser to join him.
"We both like stuff that goes," Slusser said. "We like to tinker with things that work. David was adamant about making something that worked, and I was totally onboard."
So they took something that has worked for nearly 200 years and began to make it their own. Using a cook pot from Toledo's mom's kitchen, a crude aluminum plate and a few thermoelectric modules purchased off eBay, they built the first working prototype for what they would later call the PowerPot. The pot, which converts the change in temperature moving from the heated bottom plate to the cooler water into an electric current, exceeded their expectations.
"We were like, 'Wow, that's the best performance we've ever seen. Let's do more of this,' " Slusser said.
But after encountering some early obstacles, and with significant life changes forthcoming, they shelved the still-nascent PowerPot and went their separate ways. Slusser went to work for Applied Materials in Silicon Valley and Toledo went to New York to pursue a doctorate at Cornell University.
While at Cornell, Toledo continued to tinker with the PowerPot, managing to iron out some of the electrical issues that had stalled the product's development. Over a few phone conversations and visits home, the two decided the PowerPot was promising enough to stake their futures, at least temporarily, to see through.
"We just saw that we had a limited window of opportunity," Toledo said. "If we didn't jump on it, we felt it wasn't going to be there the next year or the year after that."
What followed was a whirlwind of patent filing, new hires, a steep learning curve in market economics, the depletion of their seed funds and a $50,000 Kickstarter campaign goal shattered by more than $75,000.
"We like to say we were really crazy to start with and it hasn't really changed," Slusser said. "It's still pretty crazy to try and do it, but we've got a lot more people onboard with the craziness so it's way more convincing."
One person the small Power Practical team managed to convince was Matt Ford, whom they brought in as CEO in 2012. Ford, whose previous work included various roles with startups in textiles and outdoor gadgets, said he was initially attracted to the novelty of the product and its fit in a diverse market.
"Here you have an interesting product company here in Salt Lake serving this pretty big, cool outdoor market and it seems like it's found the right niche," Ford said.
Power Practical's challenge now is to open doors for its product lines, both existing and in development, to settle into that niche, and while the founders are working hard to make it happen, they don't take themselves too seriously.
"What's unique about here is you've got this really unique combination of a great team and great execution and then this weird mix of sophomoric behavior, which is this interesting recipe that seems to work right now," Ford said.
They may be mad about power, but they don't appear to be struggling for it.
David Toledo and Paul Slusser, graduates of the U.'s materials-science engineering program, invented the Power Pot, a thermoelectrical generator that allows users to charge any USB device while boiling water over any heat source.
After years of delays and setbacks, Toledo and Slusser filed the necessary patent paperwork, hired staff and set to building a company Power Practical around their new product.
Power Practical used the crowd-funding service Kickstarter to set, and exceed by more than $75,000, a funding goal of $50,000 and continue working to refine its products, grow brand awareness and open retail and philanthropic opportunities for the PowerPot.