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Interview

Impact design entrepreneurs: Matthew Stanton

An avid hiker, Matt Stanton is no stranger to the need for power while off the grid. His personal experience was on his mind while developing an energy harvesting shoe insert at Carnegie Mellon University. After graduating, Matt and his co-founder, Hahna Alexander, formed SolePower to design wearable energy harvesting devices for powering portable electronics, thus bringing forth a new and more reliable off-grid personal energy solution. Prior to SolePower, Matt worked for a US National Research Laboratory and researched at the Biomechatronics Lab at Carnegie Mellon before becoming the CEO of SolePower. While at SolePower, Matt has received a number of awards, including being named to Forbes 30 Under 30 Energy Category, 2014 Popular Science Invention of the Year, and 2014 Africa Innovator of the Year. SolePower is part of the Autodesk Entrepreneur Impact Program, which helps entrepreneurs and startups making a positive impact in the world get to market faster through access to free software, training, events, and co-marketing opportunities.


Tell us about yourself and your journey from being an engineering student at Carnegie Mellon University to the inventor and founder of SolePower.

I started at Carnegie Mellon looking to become a mechanical engineer. I had known I wanted to be an engineer since I was very young. As I went through school we were given the opportunity to explore areas that interested us, which allowed me to evaluate some ideas for different inventions. Eventually, we got to our senior design project where my co-founder Hahna Alexander and I, along with 3 other students, were able to design and build our first power generating insole prototype. We then connected with Project Olympus, an on-campus incubator, which helped shape our early business plan. After graduating, we were able to find some initial investment that allowed us to pursue SolePower full-time. 

What’s your design process like? How are you using design thinking in your process?

We worked through many iterations of the design, and had many different concepts before settling on the final design. Between each iteration we started with a house of quality (a type of diagram that compares consumers’ desires with a producer’s capabilities) and used target consumer feedback to inform our early design choices. We then went through extensive brainstorming to solve the problems we saw in earlier iterations and then performed hand calculations to better inform our thinking of how designs would perform. Next, we created digital models, simulated those models, and ultimately rapidly prototyped designs. After prototyping, we would run a series of tests on the design and work through improvements.

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SolePower insert that charges a cellphone as you walk.

What would you say is your strongest skill and how have you honed that skill over the years?

My skills have dramatically changed since starting SolePower. Instead of performing analysis and calculating stresses, I have been conducting customer interviews and building business plans. The real skills I have honed have been mostly in critical thinking and evaluating opportunities. Where in engineering you would start with a set of assumptions about your systems, in the business development world you start with a set of assumptions about your customers. You need to understand your customers and validate your assumptions in order to make the right market choices in the same way an engineer needs to validate the assumptions in the systems to make the right design choices. 
 

How does the use of Autodesk Inventor influence your designs and design process?

We use Autodesk Inventor to digitize our designs, test them and rapidly iterate on concepts. Inventor has allowed us to better inform our design choices as we moved through our design process. Each component was represented, analyzed and then a print was created, which we were able to supply to manufacturers. This allowed us to move through the later stages of our design process more quickly. 

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Drawing of SolePower design, created in Autodesk Inventor.

The recent role of smartphones in the refugee crisis demonstrates how critical having a charged smartphone is. What are some of the trends you are seeing in the design of power generating products like SolePower to help address the needs of populations in crisis?

SolePower can provide power to people in all sorts of situations .The recent refugee crisis is a good example of a place where people are using and need smartphones, but do not have access to a reliable power source. There have been an increasing number of innovations focused around creating energy in remote areas and getting energy to those who don't have access.  With wide spread access to mobile electronics there is an increased need for energy sources that are as mobile as the electronics they power.

What’s the best advice you have received and would like to share with emerging designers and students?
In high school I had a teacher, Mr. Bauer, who taught a Computer Control Engineering course. The class was project-based and I completed very few projects in the class because I tended to expand the projects and go outside the normal scope to try something new or different. When I finally did finish a project, which was designing from scratch and building a balsa wood plane, he congratulated me on finally finishing a project. I responded, “Maybe I should set less ambitious goals.”  He advised me, “Don’t stop thinking outside of the box and trying to set ambitious goals, that’s what will get you places in life.” Lo and behold, 8 years later we are still setting ambitious goals and trying to get SolePower into every boot, shoe, and sandal across the world! So, don’t stop experimenting, thinking outside the box or setting ambitious goals; it really does take you places.  

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SolePower in action.