Not all startups are concerned only with turning a profit. Some make it their mission to create products or services that will improve society. That’s the case for two founders who participated in the “Social Impact and the Role of Engineers in Today’s Society” panel discussion during the IEEE Vision, Innovation, and Challenges Summit, held in San Francisco in May.
Those panelists were Kevin Noertker, cofounder and CEO of aerospace company Ampaire, and Ryan Cousins, cofounder of Krtkl (pronounced critical), which develops low-cost hardware, software, and firmware. The discussion was moderated by IEEE Member Matthew Fiedler, cofounder of re:3D, which makes the Gigabot, an industrial-strength 3D printer.
Here’s what Noertker and Cousins said about their company’s mission and what drives them to do good.
Noertker founded Ampaire in 2016 after a seven-year stint at Northrop Grumman in Azusa, Calif., as a systems engineer working on aircraft and satellite technologies. Ampaire, based in Los Angeles, is developing an all-electric, zero-emission commercial airplane to reduce the environmental impact and operating costs of traditional aircraft.
“One of the core aspects of founding a company is the impact you’ll create,” he said during the panel discussion. For Ampaire, that’s opening up flight routes to underserved communities as a way to help them build up their economy.
That’s in addition to decreasing the amount of air pollution generated by airplanes. Every year about 726 million metric tons of carbon dioxide is added into the atmosphere, according to Noertker.
One of the exciting things about working in a new industry where there is so much opportunity, Noertker said, is that you get to develop technologies that enable others to succeed.
“In this early state of electric aviation, it’s still a very collaborate community,” he said. “That’s pretty motivating because the impact on others who share your vision is almost immediate.”
He said what drives him is that his work is meaningful and his ideas and technologies receive visibility.
“Picking something that you’re passionate about is essential,” he said. “There are a lot of long days, very few breaks, and many challenges. That’s just the reality that you have to deal with. It’s a roller-coaster ride, and you need to be really resilient to keep a level head and make the right decisions.”
TECH FOR THE MASSES
Krtkl, based in San Francisco, develops prebuilt and reconfigurable hardware, software, and firmware. Snickerdoodle, the company’s palm-size circuit board—which includes field-programmable gate arrays, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth—sells for less than US $100. Aimed at the maker market, Snickerdoodle reduces hurdles such as high circuit-board prices, restricted physical-interface options, and complex setups, according to PC World. Snickerdoodle is better suited for complicated projects that the Raspberry Pi can’t handle, like advanced drones and robots, the magazine said.
Cousins, a mechanical engineer, cofounded Krtkl in 2014. He spent five years as vice president of engineering at Weatherbee, an engineering design company in San Francisco.
“The reason we started Krtkl was to provide tools for people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to them,” Cousins said. “It’s the democratization of technology. We give people access to advanced technology at a price they can afford. We’ve taken the power away from the few at the top and distributed it to society as a whole.”
One of the most rewarding elements of running your own business, he said, is the control you have over your destiny.
“As an entrepreneur, making your own decisions is a direct reward and is a pretty powerful way of inspiring you to not give up,” he said. “Having those everyday tangible rewards is something you shouldn’t take for granted, because it makes what you’re doing worthwhile.”
Cousins added that it’s important to him to celebrate the little wins.
“There were a lot of people who told us we weren’t going to make it,” he said, “and I wanted to prove them wrong.”
Launching your own mission-focused company isn’t the only way to make a positive impact on society, he noted. You can volunteer or join an organization that is helping out in a cause you care about.
And not all problems that need solving are society’s biggest or most urgent, he added. You could address one in your own community or one for which your skills are needed.
“In my experience,” he said, “you have to pick problems that resonate with you and solve them the best way you know how.”
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This article has been corrected from an earlier version.