Tennessee Alumnus

Bright Idea

Bright Idea

By Diane Ballard

Red flashing lights get our attention. Very bright red flashing lights, even more so.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure that if your brake lights flash brighter than normal when you’re forced to stomp the brakes, the guy in the car behind you is likely to notice them more quickly. But it does take a genius—or at least people with a generous dollop of entrepreneurial know-how—to develop and market such a next-generation brake light—or to make a go of any innovative product or service. Entrepreneurs are a special breed, but they aren’t necessarily born with all the skills to succeed at the innovation game. Entrepreneurial talent can be nurtured, and inventions can be brought to market with a combination of knowledge and hard work.

Three UT Knoxville students developed the bright flashing brake-light technology in 2005. But marketing the product proved daunting. Enter the College of Business Administration’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship (I & E) Center, which brought the invention to the attention of UT graduates whose entrepreneurial acumen promises to make SAFElight, as the product is called, a marketplace success.

Mike Carroll (Knoxville ’80) and John McCracken (Knoxville ’97, ’99) bought the SAFElight technology and, with the help of MBA student Ted Ciuba, are bringing it to market.

“Rear-end collisions cause more property damage and more injuries than any other type of auto accident,” Carroll says. He says SAFElight alerts trailing drivers to react more quickly, thus decreasing injuries and property damage.

SAFElight is an after-market device consumers can purchase and install themselves (http://www.safelightstore.com). The inventors—Ben Jordan, Nathan Davis, and Anthony Spezia—developed it, with the help of Professor Frank Speckhart, while they were students in a joint MBA/engineering program. Their attempts to market the device met with only limited success.

By 2007, when the product hadn’t caught on in the marketplace, Glenn Swift of the I & E Center discussed the opportunity with Carroll. Not only was Carroll interested in marketing SAFElight, he also took Ciuba and two other MBA students under his wing to mentor.

Carroll says the students add value to his business. “These students are well informed, energetic, and success oriented. We don’t think of them as interns. They have real responsibilities, and they get paid. They are giving us as much as we are giving them. But also, we hope we add practical value to their careers and even help some of them realize their dreams to become successful entrepreneurs themselves.”

Ciuba says the challenges of marketing SAFElight have taught him a lot. “Working with Mike Carroll has given me a strong hands-on opportunity to experience launching and marketing a new business,” he says.

SAFElight uses patented accelerometer technology, which triggers bright bursts of light that have been proved effective at significantly reducing rear-end collisions by alerting following drivers of rapid deceleration or emergency braking. Carroll says the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration found that 90 percent of all rear-end collisions could be prevented with one single extra second of warning.

The SAFElight bulbs are LEDs, which last longer than normal bulbs. LEDs are found mostly in concept cars at auto shows. SAFElight is a pioneer in making LED technology available for nearly every driver, for both passenger vehicles and commercial fleets. SAFElight is designed to be compatible with more than 90 percent of the approximately 200 million cars, trucks, SUVs, and motorcycles registered in America today, and the company has plans already underway to further expand SAFElight’s market to commercial fleet vehicles.

Entrepreneurs Teaching Entrepreneurs

What better way to train budding entrepreneurs than to pair them with those who’ve already been successful in the entrepreneurial world? That experience, along with the rigors of an excellent MBA program, is the cornerstone of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation (I & E) Center in the College of Business Administration at UT Knoxville.

Glenn Swift lines up the entrepreneurs and pairs them with students. “The I & E focus began with three pilot MBA courses, each modeled after the skills required for the first three phases of an entrepreneur’s life—identification of the opportunity, business modeling, and strategy implementation,” Swift says.

He believes that to be able to spot opportunities and think them through, evaluate risks, and find investors, students need to take what they’ve learned in the classroom and apply it to a real-world situation.

Five years ago Swift began the process of finding successful entrepreneurs willing to work with students. Mike Carroll, CEO and founder of MK Technologies in Knoxville, agreed last fall to mentor three MBA students, including Ted Ciuba, who is helping market SAFElight.

Carroll says the I & E program fills a need in Knoxville. “The need is for graduates who can help smaller businesses be nimble and adapt quickly to changing opportunities and market conditions. Knoxville is a great environment for new enterprises and for small-business development. To capitalize on the opportunities, we need more companies with more folks who have entrepreneurial skills. This program really focuses on helping graduates identify and obtain those skills.”

“The bottom line is that successful entrepreneurship requires opportunity identification, idea visioning, planning, implementation, and tremendous focus,” says Swift. “Mike and Ted are role models for what will be the fruits of the I & E program—entrepreneurial growth for our region.”