17_Rick Terrien

President, Universal Separators, Inc.
Madison - WI US

Cleaning Up

Rick Terrien sometimes has a hard time getting away from his work. On May 13, while visiting Niagara Falls, he and his daughter noticed a small whirlpool of oil and thought about how it could be cleaned. Meeting that challenge is what his SmartSkim technology does more effectively than conventional chemicals or filters. Such companies as Caterpillar, DaimlerChrysler, and Ford are buying in.

From Rick's original entry:

Tell us what you do and the specific challenge you faced.

Rick Terrien and Dave Walker knew their ideas could solve some of the most costly environmental problems in heavy industry. However, we had no proof and no funding. We each borrowed $3,000 to start our company, sucked in our breath, and made the leap. We knew our inventions could have a big impact, but winning new business in a terrible economy needed more than warm, fuzzy environmental promises. We needed products that succeeded immediately in applications where none had worked before. We needed to prove our ideas to maintenance techs on shop floors, to financial managers looking over their shoulders, and to senior executives caught in a terrible rustbelt economy. Our challenge was to start and grow a new manufacturing company during the worst decline in manufacturing since the Great Depression. We based our strategy on convincing these heavy industrial plants that improving environmental performance equaled fast black ink.

What was your moment of truth?

We moved quickly and stayed virtual, applying many low cost tools left over from the tech bubble. We killed off any idea or process that didn't make an immediate contribution to our customers. From this base, we attacked some of the worst environmental problems, in the roughest back rooms, in the heaviest industrial plants in the world. We saw huge quantities of oil literally going down the drain as an industrial byproduct. This practice was an obvious waste of resources and of profitability. It also generated significant health, safety, and environmental problems inside and outside the plants. If we could get just one additional reuse of an oil product, it meant we had to import only half as much next time, an important national goal. To solve these costly and pressing environmental problems, we worked many all nighters, hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles from home, often in dangerous conditions. Our new products for skimming and saving oil had to work. Our results had to make an immediate, documentable impact. We stayed on the road. We worked hard and late, quarter after quarter, saving oil and fighting to keep our business model fast and hard-wired to solve real problems.

What were the results?

Our gamble was rewarded this year by Dr. Dieter Zetsche, the forward thinking CEO of DaimlerChrysler. Our innovations helped save over $206,500 in one department of one plant in a single year. Our designs helped them recycle tens of thousands of gallons of oil that had previously gone down the wastewater pipe. This year we were honored as "Significant Contributors to Environmental Excellence" by DaimlerChrysler in a worldwide competition. Our efforts have also led to four new patents in three years, multiple awards and a customer list most companies just dream about. Our gamble has now saved industry millions of gallons of oil. When the DaimlerChrysler CEO had his photo taken with our equipment, there were more people in his entourage than worked for our company at the time. We didn't tell him that. We just drank the free coffee and exhaled.

What's your parting tip?

The world needs you and your ideas. Just start.

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