Tom Gerold: Passionate innovation—pesticide, nitinol and a broken leg

Posted on 20. Apr, 2012 by in Academic Departments, Alumni, Issues, Magazine, Mechanical Engineering, People, Students

Tom Gerold

Tom Gerold


The very word evokes mental images of complex turbo-machinery, nanoscale robots and iPads. Our brains are tuned to think of people like Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs and the Wright Brothers when the word reaches our ears. Something innovative is something desired—celebrated even—in our society.

Imagine a world where the common cold is a life-threatening illness; where you actually had to be face-to-face with someone to communicate (imagine that!); where information was stored in some distant warehouse requiring a membership to gain access. It is difficult to fathom our reality without penicillin, the telephone, or the Internet.Behind these world-changing techno-breakthroughs are innovative ideas or discoveries, something that changed people’s lives for the better. Innovation seems to deserve the clout it holds within our mindset.

It is easy, therefore, to see why innovation has become a buzzword in today’s society. U.S. President Barack Obama frequently mentions initiatives to increase innovation within the United States. The corporation I currently work for is “broadening its focus on innovation” by increasing R&D resources and capital. Places like IDEO, a design and innovation consulting firm, are admired for their innovative, unorthodox methods of product creation. It is “in” to be innovative.

Even at UW-Madison, the thrust for innovative, forward-thinking students has produced the Innovation Days, Qualcomm Wireless, and Burrill business plan competitions, as well as greatly improved access to laboratories and machining facilities for engineering folks like you and me.

I believe that, in some ways, I am a product of this shift toward innovation in our society. I became interested in learning more about product design when I saw a Nightline special on how IDEO reinvented the shopping cart. I got a job at the machine shop on campus during my undergraduate days because I wanted to learn how to create and build things. I joined a corporation in the R&D department after graduation because I wanted to solve new problems. I feel that my interests within innovation have been nurtured by the societal notion that innovation is valuable and necessary. I have always been interested in building things and felt that a career in innovation would suit me well. I have enjoyed success in the Innovation Days competition on campus because I like to invent and innovate. When asked about my hobbies, I often list inventing as my favorite thing to do.

My mindset toward understanding and creating new things began at a very early age. By the time I was 8, I had amassed a 15-gallon tub full of Legos. I remember taking the gigantic tub and spilling it across the floor, picking out pieces to assemble the laser cannon mounted to the wing of the fighter jet I was making. I can vividly remember taking apart my portable CD player when I was 10: I splayed the parts across the floor, powered it up, and watched the disc spin and the read head move back and forth. It blew my mind that the thing could still play a CD (borrowed from my brother of course, just in case things went awry), even with the buttons missing and the drive motor tilted at an angle on the carpeting in my bedroom. When I was 11, I decided I’d try my hand at woodworking. I assembled a cabinet with a working hinged door for the tree house my dad had built for me. I stored magazines and Pringles inside, but the mice beat me to both before my next visit.

As I grew, so did my thirst for creating things. Throughout grade school and into middle school, I participated in science fairs, with one endeavor producing a $50 savings bond that matures in 2020. I built my first guitar when I was 15. I made a working talk-box (think Peter Frampton) out of an old amplifier, a plastic jug and a sprinkler hose when I was 16. At 17, I was toying with speaker cabinet design. When I was 19, I started fixing fried LCD TVs in my spare time. And then, one day while walking through Engineering Hall, I saw a sign for the Innovation Days competition.

The Innovation Days competition forever changed my mindset about innovation. After investing hundreds of hours into each project, I found that I liked what I was doing a lot. I liked to think of ways to transport water up a tree trunk in the most efficient way possible. I liked entertaining the crazy idea of a doctor running 8 amps of current through a pin-sized wire to deploy a self-expanding stent within someone’s diseased blood vessel. I liked the challenge of creating a solid bridge across a complex femur fracture. A voice inside of me said, “This isn’t work. This is fun.” Perhaps that is the reason I saw success within the competition: I was able to be passionate about the ideas I was incubating.

As I progress through my life, I know that I will keep learning and fueling my desire to create new things. As a development engineer at an endovascular medical device company, I am working with a team to explore treating a completely uncharted vasculature path, in hopes of providing patients with a better quality of life. As an entrepreneur, I am excited by the opportunity to help both bone fracture patients and orthopedic surgeons in the emergency room. As a future project leader, I will be able to further my team’s efforts by providing insight into problems, not just managing resources.

If my experiences with the Innovation Days competition have taught me anything, it’s this: Be passionate about what you do. If you can’t find passion in your current position, seek out something where you can be passionate. It is the classic line given by your father, your high school advisor, and your professional mentors, but it could not have been truer in my situation.

Whether you find baseball stadiums, engine crank horsepower, weather patterns, or any multitude of the other categories that make up engineering pulling at you, go for it.  I may be too young to offer time-tested advice, but I can say that so far, passionate innovation has worked out well for me.

While I will probably never invent the next Facebook or airplane, it can’t hurt to have some fun and give it a shot, right?Bucky Badger head

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