Jerad Stack wraps both of his hands around a Bauer hockey stick, his knuckles whitening as he squeezes the composite shaft, and prepares to mimic the hardest shot in the game of ice hockey.
“The last thing you want is for your stick to break,” Stack says as he cautiously guides the preferred weapon of professional superstars Steven Stamkos, Evgeni Malkin and Jonathan Toews through Wyoming’s thin air, being careful that his simulated slapshot doesn’t damage anything inside his office.
A well-struck slapshot, though, can reach speeds of nearly 110 mph. It’s the single most feared shot in the game, what often differentiates a good scorer from a great one. It’s the primary reason why goaltenders wear a helmet with a mask and all that padding.
The slapshot also helps keep Firehole Composites in business.
His demonstration complete, Stack sets the blade of the stick on the carpeted floor and rests his body against the shaft. “If you’re working for Bauer hockey, you can determine, before you go build one, how stiff the stick is going to be, how strong of a slapshot it’s going to take before it breaks, all of that,” he says. “That’s what our software does. You can do that virtually, with our technology. The materials are expensive. To build them and break them and build them and test them again, that takes a long time. And it’s expensive.”
A better hockey stick is just the tip of the iceberg at Firehole, a worldwide supplier of computer-aided engineering software whose clients include Boeing, NASA and Red Bull Racing. The Laramie-based company—Stack, just 36 years old, is the chief executive officer— also has worked with three branches of the United States military.
The cutting-edge technology patented and sold by Firehole helps create a better tomorrow for people around the world. But none of it— not the company, not the software— would exist without the College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS) at the University of Wyoming.
Named after a river that flows through geyser basins inside Yellowstone National Park, Firehole is among the engineering school’s greatest success stories, its core technology developed in the mid-1990s in UW’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. But Firehole isn’t the only example of UW’s influence.
“We have a history of developing entrepreneurs out of the College of Engineering: Jerad Stack, Mike Kmetz, Mona Gamboa, Randal Six. All of them are graduates and successful entrepreneurs,” says Laramie engineer and surveyor Dave Coffey, whose grandfather, Donald R. Lamb, is a member of the CEAS Hall of Fame at Wyoming’s university. “We’re graduating industry leaders here. And those industry leaders land in jobs and start careers and start companies in Wyoming that can provide huge economic development opportunities for the state.”
"I got a wonderful education here,” says Stack, a native of Casper who graduated from UW, just as generations before him in his family, including his parents. “Every time I hear someone talking about coming here, I give them a sincere, emphatic pitch. I’ve worked with people who went to MIT and some of the other big schools. But the education I got here, I’d put it up against anybody.”
But UW’s legacy of engineering excellence faces a threat. While enrollment continues to rise, up 22 percent over the past six years, the university has run out of space in antiquated facilities that fail to rival regional peer institutions, including Colorado State University, Montana State University and the University of Utah.
UW’s newest engineering space, a major 1980 addition to a building that opened nearly 90 years ago, is the same age as most schools’ oldest engineering facilities, and many CEAS teaching laboratories are just 25 percent of needed space and lacking the newest technology.
That’s why university and state officials are exploring a massive capital construction project that would likely be the largest in UW’s 126-year history. A year ago, the Wyoming State Legislature appropriated $1.15 million to plan for the renovation and expansion of CEAS facilities. Lawmakers also set aside $30 million in state funding, to be matched by $30 million in private donations, as the first step toward rejuvenating UW’s facilities.
“UW’s College of Engineering and Applied Science has been a wonderful place for students to get an education for decades, and our graduates’ successful careers are truly remarkable and span an impressive array of industries,” says Andy Hansen, UW’s associate provost. “While the college has a rich tradition of excellence, the growth of the college in terms of students and faculty is constrained by an acute lack of laboratory space. Moreover, intellectual advancement in an exploding era of technological innovation requires a modernization of a great many teaching and research labs.
“The college is poised to take a significant step toward national prominence with the proposed facility upgrades, providing tangible outcomes that will surely benefit Wyoming in a substantial way.”
Mike Kmetz doesn’t remember the engineer’s name. But he has never forgotten his words.
“He had a part that went in a printer, a plastic part, and he held it up and said, ‘You know what, it takes us like six or eight weeks to go from concept to where we get a prototype. We’ve got to cut the time on that,’” Kmetz says. “All that we wanted to do at that time was to get more involved in developing some engineering software. We weren’t thinking so much about the marketing side. We just thought it would be cool to help him solve his problem.”
He stops, as if he’s remembering the 1986 encounter all over again, and then finds his words. “But, now, in hindsight,” Kmetz says, “that was a real pivotal meeting.”
With IBM’s problem as the catalyst— the American technology and consulting giant had come to the University of Wyoming seeking help in its quest for a more efficient method to reference technical information for the plastics it was using to develop its computer products—Kmetz, who was pursuing his master’s degree in mechanical engineering at the time, began building what has since become the largest plastics-only database in the world.
From some 9,000 materials in its infant stages, the IDES Prospector Plastic Materials Database has grown to include more than 85,000 materials and 875 global manufacturers. The database of the first spin-off business to emerge from UW research is available in seven languages and accessed annually by more than 319,000 industry users.
“Mike Kmetz is a hero for technology businesses in Laramie,” says Bill Gern, UW’s vice president for research and economic development. “He really, really worked hard. He put every nickel he could get his hands on, and raised a family at the same time, into that company. He took a Ph.D. dissertation and made a business out of it.”
In July 2012, Kmetz sold IDES to UL, an Illinois-based safety consulting and certification company that will enable Kmetz to globally grow his company, primarily into Asia, where IDES’ database is particularly lacking.
But Kmetz had one stipulation to the sale: IDES would remain in Laramie, inside the brick building on Grand Avenue, a stone’s throw from The Library Sports Grille and Brewery.
Like Firehole Composites, whose Laramie offices are located next to Alexander’s Fine Jewelry on Second Street, though most folks walk right on past the glass front door without giving it a second look, UL/IDES is hidden in plain sight on the high plains.
“We’re beginning to see some diversification in our economy in Laramie and southeast Wyoming, and that’s because we’re beginning to see technology companies spring up. That’s largely due to the College of Engineering,” says Coffey, CEO of Coffey Engineering and Surveying, a third-generation consulting firm that was founded by UW professors in 1951. “I can’t help but believe that if we improve the College of Engineering, we’ll continue to see further growth in the technology sector and that’s huge for this part of Wyoming that doesn’t have any mineral resources.
When Jerad Stack answered his phone on an April day in 2007, he didn’t know his life would change. On the other end was Emmett Nelson, the chief technology officer and principal engineer at Firehole Composites.
“He said, ‘You wanna come home?’” Stack recalls with a smile.
Firehole was at a crossroads. Two of the company’s co-founders, Six and Chris Key, also UW graduates, had decided to move onto other ventures, and Nelson didn’t want to see Firehole’s fledgling potential fall into oblivion. But he needed help.
It was an easy decision, Stack says, to return to Wyoming after launching his career in Texas and Colorado. Months later, Firehole advocates at the U.S. Air Force provided the words of encouragement that spurred Stack and Nelson to grow the company, setting into motion a series of events that culminated in 2009 with the first sale of a piece of software.
“It was actually the day of our Christmas party in 2009,” says Stack, whose company has now grown to 16 employees, including 14 UW graduates. “The guy called and said, ‘We’re sending you a check!’”
A year later, Firehole struck its partnership with Boeing, the marquee client that Stack and Nelson knew they needed to establish themselves in the marketplace. “Emmett and I looked at each other and said, ‘We made it now,’” Stack says. “They drive us to make our products better, and we feel like we’re helping them to make their products better.”
Today, Firehole also has offices in Seattle, to strengthen its relations with Boeing and other Northwest clients, and Casper.
“And it all harks back to the 1980s, when the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the university made a pretty heavy investment in composites,” says Stack, referring to the Composite Materials Research Group, which was founded in 1972 by Donald F. Adams, a now-retired professor who, to this day, is affectionately referred to as UW's "Godfather of Composites."
Stack is certain UW can be the breeding grounds for future companies like his own. With one caveat: The state and the university must continue the work that began during the 2012 legislative budget session to upgrade engineering facilities on the Laramie campus.
Whatever the cost, Kmetz says the project will pay dividends—for students, the university and the state. “I’m certainly on the side of the fence that believes we need a world-class facility to churn out world-class engineers and to attract research dollars,” he says.
Coffey’s grandfather is another strong proponent. As a UW faculty member from 1951 to 1981, Donald R. Lamb conducted much of his research in the “Sawtooth,” the nickname for the original 1925 Engineering Building. “And he told me that, even back in those days, the ‘Sawtooth’ was an outdated and poorly designed space,” Coffey says.
When he passed along the news that UW and state officials were collaborating on a plan to upgrade the engineering facilities, Coffey says his grandfather had a universal reaction.
“He said, ‘Well, it’s about damn time!’”