Q&A

Fellows Friday with Ben Gulak

Posted by: Alana Herro
At age 17, Ben Gulak invented an electric motorcycle that was named “Invention of the Year” by Popular Science. He’s now working on a snowmobile-ATV hybrid. Though being a full-time student and running two businesses has meant a lot of sacrifices — including his favorite TV show “Dexter” — Ben says the rewards are well worth it.

Interactive Fellows Friday Feature!
Join the conversation by answering Fellows’ weekly questions via Facebook. This week, Ben asks:

In your everyday life, what have you seen that could be redesigned to better the world?

Click here to respond!

Tell us about your inventions. What was your inspiration to create them?

The Shredder is a new kind of all-terrain vehicle. In a recession it doesn’t make sense to have to buy an expensive snowmobile that you can ride for three months of the year and an ATV that you can ride for four months of the year. I wanted to make something small enough that you could fit it in the back of any car. And I wanted it to be something you’d be able to ride all year, whether in snow, sand, or mud. Something that would be really all-terrain, all year.

Ben riding the Shredder.

With that in mind, my partner Ryan Ferris and I came up with this cool stand-up power sport vehicle. It’s almost like a skateboard that you ride. It’s really a crossover between extreme and power sport. That’s where the idea started. It turns out that it’s this really compact modular platform that the military is interested in, for a whole bunch of other applications, as well.

The Uno started off as a high school science project. I got the idea when my dad had a business trip to China and my mom and I went along. This was at a time when global warming was really taking front and center in the news. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth had just come out, and they were talking about pollution almost every day. I was at more or less the epicenter where all this bad stuff was happening. I remember reading in the paper that everyday 20,000 new cars were hitting Chinese roadways. I thought for my next science fair project I wanted to do something green.

I thought, “I know about motorcycles, what about some sort of green motorcycle or electric bike?” I wanted to do something that was really going to stand out and make a statement that being green can be cool.

So in grade 12, I came up with this new kind of electric motorcycle. I wanted it to be something small enough to store indoors: you could bring it up to your apartment to plug in and charge, and then you could ride it around on the road. Instead of having a wheel in the front and a wheel in back, there are two wheels side-by-side, and you sit over top of it. It’s kind of a crossover between a unicycle and a street bike, and it’s all electric.

After the science fair, it got a whole bunch of attention. I decided to take a year off of school to keep developing it and see where it went. Popular Science named it “Invention of the Year” and put it on the cover of their June 2008 issue. I ended up raising some capital, moving to Boston and opening a small office in Cambridge. We’ve been working on it for the last two years down in the States, while I’ve been going to school at MIT.

Are the Shredder and the Uno for sale now?

Neither of the projects are for sale yet. We’re still developing the Uno, we’re still developing the Shredder.

When I was at TED last year, the Shredder was really just a proof of concept. I built the first prototype by taking a year off of school to work on it with my partner. Eight months later, we have a contract with the US Air Force to develop a military version. We’re planning on doing our first production run and actually selling the units over the summer, which is pretty exciting.

We were working on the prototype, and decided to post some of our videos online. By the next night, we had 50,000 hits, and then 100,000 hits, and within a week we had over 1 million YouTube hits. People started blogging about this thing as a new military toy, which is something we had never really thought about. It was always supposed to be an extreme sports vehicle. Suddenly, we have all this attention, and everyone was focused on it as a new military transport, a personal rapid response unit. At that point we decided we weren’t going to partner up with another company, we were going to do it ourselves.

All of this happened in the last two to three months, so it’s been really tough being a full-time student. I end up not sleeping very much.

At the same time, the Uno has evolved, too. Originally it had two wheels and it balanced a lot like a Segway: lean forward to accelerate, lean back to decelerate. One of the problems was turning this really cool science project into something that we can actually sell to the public and ride on roads.

Now, the Segway can only go 10 miles per hour for a very good reason: it’s unsafe at high speeds. We came up with this really clever transforming design. We’ve gone through three different design prototype phases. And this new one is the final version that I think we’re going to be able to sell in the next year and a half. So both the Uno and the Shredder are finally closing in on a point where I’m going to have something I can actually sell.

What first got you interested in engineering and design?

My grandfather was a design engineer and he had a full shop in his basement, so I really grew up in the engineering world. I used to do little projects with him in the basement, like little rocket ships and trains. Nothing super crazy … he always just wanted to build things with me. That’s where I got the bug for it.

In grade nine, when I had my first science fair project, I ended up actually building it with him in the basement. He passed away two months after that, and I inherited all the equipment. So for the next four years that I was doing these science fair projects and robotics competitions, I had access to all the machinery I needed. I also had 13 years of experience in working with them. So it really let me build some pretty cool things.

Which inventor from history do you most admire?

When I was younger I read Nikola Tesla. He’s someone who was born into the wrong century. He was so far ahead of his time. I think the work that he came up with was really amazing. If he had had more resources, he could have had an even bigger impact on the world.

And one of the people I really admire right now is Steve Jobs. Apple comes up with some really amazing products, but he also really cares about design aesthetic and consumer experience. When the computer industry first started, he was a visionary who saw a lot of potential, and has shaped the way the whole industry has moved.

Ben presenting at TEDxIBYork.

What do your parents think of all your success?

It’s difficult … you can argue that I haven’t achieved anything yet. There’s a lot of potential for these projects, but nothing has actually happened yet. All the media stuff that has happened is very exciting, but it doesn’t really mean very much yet.

All my mom really wants is that I get my engineering degree. I think if I told her that I got rid of both the companies and was just going to be a full-time student, that would be the best news in the world for her.

But my parents are very, very supportive. I’ve created a lot of headaches for them over the years, and they’ve always had my back 110 percent, which has been pretty amazing. And I’ve taken a lot of time off of school and they have still supported me, which has been really good.

I imagine you could have been a handful as a child.

I never really did anything the normal way. Ever. It created a lot of problems. Even when I was little, I was getting in trouble for stupid little things in school. If I had an idea of how something should be done, or what I wanted to do, I always ended up finding a way to do it my way, and that created friction along the way.

In high school, I liked working on my science projects more than going to class. I would skip school to work on my science project. It was weird, because the projects were doing well, and I was winning lots of awards with them, so I couldn’t really get in trouble. But I wasn’t doing very well in science class, even though I was going to all these international science fairs and winning all these awards.

When you went on the reality TV series Dragons’ Den to pitch the Uno to a panel of venture capitalists, were you nervous?

Not really, actually. This was just my own ignorance at the time, but the Uno had just gotten all this publicity. I figured it should be easy to raise money. I was getting all these emails from people wanting to invest. So I thought if I go on the show, it doesn’t actually matter if I make the deal or not, because I have all this other interest.

Little did I know that the recession was going to start like a month later, and four of the five dragons would end up bailing. But it let me go on the show with a lot of confidence. That helped, because the publicity of the show really helped put the Uno on the global stage, and also gave it credibility as a business project.

It was dumb luck that it worked out so well when I was on the show, because I probably should have been a lot more nervous.

There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What is one piece of advice you would give to them based on your own experiences and successes? Learn more about how to become a great social entrepreneur from all of the TED Fellows on the Case Foundation blog.

It’s funny that you ask that. I get a lot of entrepreneurs and inventors emailing me or contacting me on Facebook, saying, “What should I do?” It sounds really corny, but you have to follow your passion. You’re going to sacrifice social life, you’re going to sacrifice sleep — you’re going to end up making a lot of sacrifices to make it work. If you really, really love it, you just have to find a way to make it work, and it’ll pay off.

Don’t let other people tell you you can’t do something. If you really want something badly enough, just figure out a way. Go talk to people, make the phone calls. It takes a lot of time and effort. That’s where you really have to believe in what you’re doing. It can’t be sort of a part-time thing. You have to be 100 percent behind it.

What has the TED Fellowship meant to you?

The first time I walked into the International Science Fair in grade nine, it hit me that “Holy shit, there’s so much amazing stuff going on.” I was competing at a science fair for $7 million in prizes, and I was hooked. I realized I wanted to do Science Fair for the rest of my life.

TED was the same thing for me. I’d never been in an environment like that before, where you’re exposed to that many amazing ideas. Really cool people that are all doing their own interesting projects. And it was just the neatest brainstorming session I’ve ever been to in my whole life. If I could, I’d be back there this year. Unfortunately, the tickets are too expensive, and I didn’t want to apply for a Senior Fellowship yet. But I definitely want to go back next year, and it definitely had a huge impact on my life.

How do you manage being a student and running two companies? Do you have any time for fun?

I actually disconnected my cable at the start of the semester, because I was spending way too much time watching TV. “Dexter” was one of my favorite shows, and I would sit and watch a whole season in an afternoon. I realized that if I was going to do school and work, I couldn’t have a TV as well.

Originally, when I started all this stuff, I thought I wanted to be an engineer. I loved actually building the projects. Over the last two years, there’s been a big shift in what I do with my time. I focus almost all my time on the business side now, raising money, running the two companies. And I realized that I actually really, really love business. There are very stressful times, and it’s a rollercoaster. There are great highs and there are lows. But I really like the business side of the companies. It’s fortunate that I actually like doing that. That is my fun time.

Hmm, I realize how pathetic that makes my life sound … I do actually do some fun things. I was out at the Playboy mansion for Halloween. I’ve been there a bunch of times. I do some fun things occasionally, but I also work a lot.

You’ve mentioned that it’s important to you that your inventions improve the world.

Yeah, the Uno is an electric vehicle, so it’s sort of self-explanatory how it’s going to have a positive impact.

The Shredder is a little tougher because it’s a recreational vehicle. But one of the things that we’re finding out now, with the military, is that that it has applications for search and rescue. As a matter of fact, we’ve done tests where it’s towed stretchers and things. By working as a robot, you can send a stretcher into the field and have it bring back an injured soldier, without having to risk any more soldiers’ lives. We’re looking at using it in disaster zones and fire mitigation. So it has all these really altruistic applications as well.

Beyond these two projects, I’m not really sure what I’m going to do next. My investors would kill me if I came up with another project before something happens with one of these. But whatever I do, I want to keep doing things that have the potential to have a positive impact.