Wired In: Paul Couston

9/19/2016 9:25:22 AM Paul Wood

Photo by: Heather Coit/The News-GazettePaul Couston shows off a visualization of a gas unit using a hybrid approach to solar power. Couston was at EnterpriseWorks in Champaign on Friday, Sept. 9, 2016.
Photo by: Heather Coit/The News-Gazette Paul Couston shows off a visualization of a gas unit using a hybrid approach to solar power. Couston was at EnterpriseWorks in Champaign on Friday, Sept. 9, 2016.

On Sundays, staff writer Paul Wood spotlights a high-tech difference maker. This week, PAUL COUSTON, 19, who's working on green energy projects. He's a sophomore in industrial engineering, but also planning to get a dual degree in innovation leadership and engineering entrepreneurship. Couston is in the first cohort of the new program. Couston is also president of the Student Sustainability Committee at the University of Illinois, one of the largest in the nation. In the Cozad Competition, he entered an solar energy project with roommate Nathan Franczyk. It is only one of many projects he is working on.

Where did the idea come from?

I was an 18-year-old freshman, and in a class about ranging "from idea to enterprise." We were asked to pitch in with a project. I said "I have an idea." I worked in remodel/redesign at a construction company over the summer before college. I was building a patio, and I made one little mistake on the woodwork, and I didn't have a knife. I needed to use a saw. The generator was off; I had to pull it out, pour gasoline into it, start it — because we weren't using power in the backyard — then let the saw warm up. With the generator running, and I turned on the saw, used it for one minute, then turned off the generator. What if we had a generator that could store just a little bit of power, like a capacitor — that was the "aha!" moment — so if you just used it for a little while? You wouldn't have to waste that fuel. When I first came up with the idea, it was just straight solar. I realized that wasn't powerful enough, especially for construction We had a couple pivots, thinking about third-world development. And then we thought it might make more sense just to license the technology straight to the manufacturer.

How did that work out?

After months of planing and trying to find out what our market was, we decided to go with a retrofit model. It's a hybrid idea, just like a Prius, you start with the solar battery, and then what that's run down at the sweet point, you switch to gas and recharge the battery. I'd like to see that hybrid model in something besides cars. We're moving to a more sustainable form of energy use, but it has to be baby steps. You're not going to wake up tomorrow and be 100 percent green.

What kind of funding do you have?

This is all boot-strapped, me and my roommate going to Home Depot and getting solar panels.

Are you committed to this idea as your future?

I have the entrepreneurial bug, so starting my own company is the only definite plan I have. This is our first run at it, our first glorious failure. You want to get to failure quickly —the idea is you don't want to waste time on an idea that's not really going to take off. This idea was a classic case of engineering first; we spent hours and hours developing this product. When we got to Cozad, we made it all the way to the finals, but at the finals, they asked: what's your market, what are you going to price it at. I fell in love with the product and I should have fallen in love with the value I was adding. I've looking at other start-ups involving solar/battery projects.

Then what?

My future is open. I want to start a company to add value where value hasn't been added — I have the bug. When I'm out of college I plan on pursuing a job in my industry — mainly gaining manufacturing and operations experience. Then, I plan on potentially pursuing a consulting career to get exposure to multiple industries and allowing me to interact with multiple companies. Throughout this entire plan, I will always be looking for entrepreneurial ideas and plan on pursuing the right opportunity when it is presented.

TECH TIDBITS ... from PAUL COUSTON

Wearable electronics? No. I record everything on my phone, like steps ... it's my computer.

Social media? I use Facebook, Snapchat, LinkedIn.

Book or Kindle? I like a book.

What are you reading right now? A book called "The Answer: Grow Any Business, Achieve Financial Freedom, and Live an Extraordinary Life."