This story appears in the May 2021 issue of Business Alabama magazine.
Zac Young is out to change the power company world, one utility truck at a time. And he’s off to a good start. Just a few years after coming up with an idea, his Vulcan Line Tools — which produces a small device that clamps to power lines to test their sag, tension and temperature — has test devices in the hands of Alabama Power Co. and Georgia Power Co., with orders coming in from others.
“In three years, we’re hoping to have 7,000-8,000 units out there,” Young says. “That would pull in about $5 million for the company.”
But first things first. Young plans to graduate from college in May, earning his mechanical engineering degree from Auburn University. Young is running his company out of Auburn’s New Venture Accelerator, on the first floor of the 105,000-square-foot Research and Innovation Center, which opened late last year at The Park, part of the Auburn Research and Technology Foundation. Jointly managed by the Harbert College of Business and the ARTF, the New Venture Accelerator brings together Auburn’s entrepreneurial efforts for students and faculty, provides space for startups to operate and grow and assists Auburn faculty in efforts to commercialize their research.
“It’s really a first-class facility and state-of-the-art incubator and accelerator,” says Cary Chandler, director of business development and startups in Auburn’s Office of Innovation Advancement and Commercialization and senior director of the ARTF. The accelerator brings together students, faculty and others work-ing on new business ventures.
“We wanted to get the old and the young, experienced and inexperienced, and mash them up together,” Chandler says. “We felt like creative collisions would happen by having the faculty and students and entrepreneurs and folks that have not been exposed to that all together. We feel like that’s the best practice that will have benefits down the road.”
It’s already benefitted Young, whose father worked for Alabama Power before retiring to become an entrepreneur himself, creating software that utilities are using.
“My sophomore year of college, I got into the engineering ques- tions, and I started talking to him more and more about it,” Young recalls. “He said there were some issues with some stuff utilities had been doing, and there’s a market out there if you can come out with a device that can help them out.”
The issue was that electric utilities must build their lines with a precise amount of tension, and “right now, the methods they have to check that are really slow or really expensive,” Young says.
Working for two summers at his father’s office in Chelsea, Young came up with a device that straps around the power line and gives the company useful information — sag, tension and temperature — in five seconds.
“What I’m selling them on is that it’s not that expensive and doesn’t add much time to what they’re doing,” he adds.
Last August, Young began working in Auburn’s accelerator and entering pitch competitions. Akin to TV’s “Shark Tank,” entrepreneurs pitch their businesses in hopes of winning money to help fund the venture. To date, Vulcan Line Tools has won about $33,000, including $27,500 in March by winning Auburn’s Tiger Cage competition.
But it’s more than the money, says Young, who says the New Venture Accelerator is “a hidden gem.”
“The fact that we get to be here for free made all four years of going to Auburn worth it,” Young says. “If you could put a monetary value on the knowledge I’ve gained here, it has to be over $200,000. I kind of want to tell more people about it, but I kind of don’t.”
That’s music to the ears of folks like Lou Bifano, Auburn’s director of entrepreneurship strategy, and Scott McGlon, one of two entrepreneurs-in-residence at Auburn.
For McGlon, the New Venture Accelerator shows that Auburn means business when it comes to startup businesses.
“Auburn has always had an entrepreneurship/innovative-type mindset but really didn’t put action with that that would actually show an outsider that we mean business,” he says. “This really shows off and shows out in a big way as far as Auburn’s new focus on innovation, commercialization and, of course, entrepreneurship.”
In addition, each of Auburn’s 12 colleges now allows students to earn a minor in entrepreneurship, McGlon says.
“We have the resources, the mentors, the space, the programming and, more importantly, quite a few success stories, and that’s all happened in the past few years,” he says.
One of the more recent success stories is XO Armor Technologies, which provides protective sports gear via 3-D printing and was featured on ESPN. A goal is to fill the accelerator with students and entrepreneurs from all walks of life.
“If you look at the numbers, there are fewer women and people of color involved in entrepreneurship than we would like to see,” Bifano says. “We’re constantly looking at ways to nurture that. Having student entrepreneurs that come from a more diverse background as role models is somewhere where we think we can make inroads.”
Successful startups could mean money for Auburn University. The university has equity in faculty ventures, so commercialization of research done by faculty at Auburn means money for the university. Students, though, own their intellectual property, and the university doesn’t benefit from it financially, Bifano says.
“With the students, it’s a play over the long haul,” he says. “If they’re successful, we hope they’ll remember where they were helped out and be generous to Auburn.”
For his part, Young says his company, which will next compete in the spring’s Alabama Launchpad competition, “would not be what it is without the accelerator.”
“They really want to see you succeed,” he says. “I’ve got such great mentors here. My dad is like, ‘You have no idea how blessed you are to have the Scott McGlons and the Lou Bifanos willing to come talk to you and take their time.’ He’s three times the entrepreneur I’ll ever be, but he didn’t have any of this help when he was coming up. No pitch competitions, no people to talk to.”
Young says that after his taste of success as a business owner, he has no intention of applying for a job with another company after graduation.
“I’m going to ride this until the ship either sinks or sails,” he says. “I’ve gotten a taste of what it’s like to be an entrepreneur, and it’s awesome, man. I wouldn’t want to do anything else, and, hopefully, I won’t have to.”