Two Heros, One Opportunity to Meet Both

Robert Jordan is my hero, which is one of the reasons I am so thrilled to share him with you at the Dane County Small Business Awards program, this year held on the morning of June 18. After you hear him speak — one of two “hero” keynote presenters — I think he’ll top your list of memorable people, too.

I first met Jordan during a radio interview. The focus was innovation, and all I knew was that he was an inventor in the truest sense of the word. An over-the-road truck driver from 1987 to 2006, he spent 10 years asking other truckers why they left their engines running, and though he understood their reasons — comfort, television, shaving, temperature control while sleeping — he didn’t buy into them personally. So he decided to invent an alternative energy source.

“My truck, now kept at my home, has 1.7 million miles on it without an overhaul,” he told me. He believed he could invent a means whereby trucks would not have to idle to provide energy to the cab for overnight sleeping comfort.

Robert said he spent every available minute down in his basement, tinkering, refining his plans, building prototypes. He’d be away for a long stretch of time, and then disappear to work on his invention. He put savings toward it. “Eventually, I think even my wife thought I was crazy,” he confessed. But he could visualize a better system, and he was determined to build it. In 2003, he finally applied for a patent for his “reefer link” invention.

He sold prototypes, refined the process, and started winning engineering and environmental awards and, with it, media attention. In 2006, he was selected as “Trucker of the Year” by Overdrive Magazine. That year he also created a hybrid system, further modifying his design. A March 2007 New York Times article reported, “Though Robert Jordan clocked nearly 3 million miles in nearly 30 years hauling Wisconsin cheese around the United States, he never considered himself a typical trucker. On the road he listened to books on tape. He drove slower than almost everyone else, and he never saw the point of running the engine when the truck wasn’t moving.”

Today, his system is a heating and cooling alternative offered for all Mack trucks. His company has diversified products for the trucking industry and he’s hired a CEO to run his company, leaving him time to do what he does best — invent. His systems are going into school bus systems, public transit, and on fleets. “Think about the impact this product has on the environment,” he beams. And listening to him and watching his face, it’s evident that the payoff for him is the environment, more than the promise of ROI.

This man has a mission, and he’s living it. I applaud that. And you can join me in that applause at the event!

My second hero (and not coincidentally, our second inventor speaker that morning!) is Greg Piefer, who graced the cover of IB for the “40 Under 40” issue. Again, I met him while doing a radio interview — and his story is also one that could change the quality of your life … and perhaps even save your life one of a couple ways one day.

He makes radioactive isotopes — including material necessary for MRIs. He’s into nuclear fusion. We wrote about that venture in the March 2010 issue.

Beyond that — what we didn’t mention at that time, but what I knew and found most fascinating, is that this young man also is at a critical juncture with a product for Homeland Security.

You know those massive containers on ships sitting in harbors that are supposed to be checked before they are allowed on U.S. soil? Those lead-lined containers that could contain, well, who knows what? Dangerous stuff, even? It may not surprise you to know that huge lead-based containers take about an hour to scan after they are on U.S. soil — and that’s not practical with thousands of the things entering the coasts every day, so for every one that is scanned, hundreds or even thousands are not.

So, Piefer had an idea, and toward that solution, he began inventing the product he saw in his mind. Imagine a compact unit that fits on cranes that is so powerful that it can scan a lead container in minutes instead of hours — on the ship, before the container is moved. There are prototypes in operation now.

You got that right — this gentleman is going places. And you have a chance to meet him and to hear his story at the launch of his career. Because he’s going to get a lot of media attention along the way, too, and you can always say, “I met him when he was just starting out.”

Two very different men, two very different stories, one theme: Innovation During Tough Times.

Let’s get out of the recession fatigue funk together. Let’s spend a little time together dwelling on ideas. Exciting ideas that can change our world as we know it.

Join me and my helpmate, County Executive Kathleen Falk, as I emcee the Dane County Small Business Awards on Friday morning, June 18, from 7:30 to 9:00 a.m. We’re serving up a great breakfast, fascinating presentations, and then, as if that wasn’t enough (it isn’t), we’re recognizing 10 Dane County companies that excel in their industries because of their own innovative practices — and their concern about creating a great workplace culture. And, by the way, they are all good community stewards, too — that’s a requirement for winning the awards.

Who knows? Maybe your own next best idea will be inspired that morning. It’s a great value at $25 a ticket, which includes breakfast and free parking, so what have you got to lose, except the recession doldrums?

Take a walk on the innovative side with us on June 18. For more information, and to register (enrollment is limited, so register today!), visit http://sbdc.wisc.edu/DCSBA/dcsbaprogram.html.

Also, a reminder: Do I have your favorite photos (that you took?). We’re starting the contest soon, so send me four photos by e-mail! No cost to enroll, and fame if you win! Send four photos per entry.

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