Society of Innovators announces its 2012 Fellows.
by Rick A. Richards
People who do what they do because they love doing it don't see themselves as doing anything special. At least that's the case with the people chosen as Fellows of the Society of Innovators of Northwest Indiana for 2012.
Those Fellows and two research teams that share the Chanute Prize for Innovation are quick to deflect attention from themselves.
Olga Petryszyn's reaction when she learned she had been chosen as a Fellow of the Society of Innovators was confusion. “Really?” was Petryszyn's first thought. “There have to be other people more deserving than me.”
John Davies, managing director of The Society of Innovators of Northwest Indiana, says that kind of reaction isn't unusual. Over the years, people have done remarkable cutting-edge research in the region and in most cases they did it because they simply loved what they were doing. Such is the case with the 2012 Class of Fellows.
The Society was created in 2005 by Ivy Tech Community College Northwest to honor the individuals who have created products, processes or services that make a difference, not only in Northwest Indiana, but across the nation and the world. The Society of Innovators is helped by principal sponsors ArcelorMittal, Bukva Imaging, Horseshoe Casino, Krieg DeVault, NIPSCO, Northwest Indiana Business Quarterly, and the Times Media Company.
Ideas from Jasper, Lake, LaPorte, Newton, Porter, Pulaski and Starke counties are reviewed each year, and individual Fellows are selected along with Chanute Prize winners that recognize team innovation.
Gregg VanDusseldorp Sr., Founder
Omnitech Systems Inc., Valparaiso
Gerald I. Lampkin Fellow for Innovation and Science
Greg VanDusseldorp Sr. says he was quite honored to be selected, “but to be honest, I wasn't quite sure what it was.” The founder of Omnitech Systems Inc. in Valparaiso, his company makes medical devices for urology, gynecology and electro-surgical areas.
“One of my goals is for the company to be an example to others,” says VanDusseldorp. “This business is a family where everyone contributes. I do it that way because of my Christian faith, and I do it because I do not believe that anyone can be successful if they don't give back to the community.
“We are helping people, we are curing people, we are alleviating pain, and we're increasing life expectancy,” says the 64-year-old VanDusseldorp. “That's the excitement for me when I see a device and someone says, ‘That's not going to work.' Well for me, that's the word ‘Go!' That's when I jump on it.”
VanDusseldorp isn't a doctor or an engineer. He says he's an idea person who's been working with his hands since he was 8 years old helping his father repair lawnmowers. “I am an individual with a huge imagination and strong mechanical background that can watch a surgery and help a doctor figure out a way to get to the problem.”
It's his experience in operating rooms, watching surgeons as they work, that has stamped Omnitech as a world leader in creating specialty devices. “We don't get much recognition in this business. What we get is delayed gratitude. When our devices work, all of the stress and struggle is recognized. With this honor, it's good for my company and my people.”
For a business that began with VanDusseldorp operating with just a telephone and a coffeepot in 1994, the company has built a worldwide reputation. Omnitech has eight patents and several others are pending.
“But a patent is only a plaque on the wall without a good team to bring that product to market,” says VanDusseldorp. “This gives the people around me much of the credit and that's the way it should be.”
Pearl Prince, Principal
Frankie Woods McCullough Girls Academy, Gary
When Pearl Prince, an educator for more than 40 years with Gary Community Schools, learned she had been chosen a Fellow, her first reaction was shock.
“When I read about the accomplishments of the other people in the group, I told my husband, ‘What am I doing with these people?'” Her determination to do whatever it takes to create new learning models is why she was selected.
“This is just what I do. I just work to do my best to represent Gary Community Schools the best I can,” says Prince. “This is beyond anything I ever thought of. I never thought I was an innovator.”
Her approach to get parents–in many instances, single parents–involved in the learning process, is why the Frankie Woods McCullough Girls Academy has increased test scores for students. Raised by a single parent herself, Prince says that when single parents tell her they're single and aren't able to take part in school activities, Prince tells them about her upbringing.
“That breaks the ice,” she says. “Let me be clear. Everything we do here is about student achievement. I tell the teachers we are a team and we need to work together.” With the state placing more emphasis on test results, Prince works to come up with new ideas to teach children beyond the test. Her approach is working. English and language arts scores are up from 74 percent to 84 percent in the last two years.
“We celebrate the success of all our students,” says Prince of the kindergarten through seventh-grade school that has more than 450 students. “Our job is to make sure children have the basic needs, that they're taught competently, that they're taught competitively and that they be young ladies. I tell them it's not important where you start in life; it's where you end up.”
Dr. Neal H. Haskell
Professor of Forensic Science and Biology
Saint Joseph's College, Rensselaer
As an 11-year-old farm kid, Neal Haskell was fascinated with bugs and has turned a 4-H project on insects into a career.
The scientific approach Haskell has used in studying the lifecycles of maggots and other insects has made him the go-to guy when police need help in solving a difficult case. Over the years, Haskell has worked with the Indiana State Police, the FBI, Office of Chief Coroner in Ontario, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, New York State Police and the Seattle Medical Examiner's Office.
When police needed help creating a timeline in the sensational Caylee Anthony case in Florida, they called Haskell. He's assisted in more than 700 cases across the country.
“I was extremely flattered when I learned of the honor, but I never really thought of myself as an innovator,” says Haskell. “I figured it was enough to be recognized in my own field. When I read the list of other people being honored, I said to myself, ‘What in the hell am I doing here?'”
Haskell is the first person to receive master's and doctoral degrees in forensic entomology. He explains that's the study of insects and how they relate to the courts.
And while he's single-minded about that (his email address starts with “blowfly” and his license plate reads “Maggots”) he's also working to create standards for forensic entomologists.
“I want to create a set of protocols. We have a big problem with ethics and integrity in this field,” he says. “I want to see that pinned down. The courts need to know which person is a true expert.
“The jury is my primary audience. I have to be able to talk to them in terms they understand. I have to get very basic concepts across to them quickly. After all, they have someone's life and future in their hands.”
Haskell still lives near Rensselaer on a farm not far from where he grew up. His 800-acre farm is part of his laboratory. He uses dead pigs from a nearby hog operation to study the lifecycle of maggots under different conditions and his basement laboratory contains hundreds of thousands of dead maggots, all carefully preserved to document his research.
Haskell says when it comes time for him to present the conclusions he's reached in a courtroom, he has one rule–he will not stray from his findings. “I put myself on the line when this happens. I'm not going to compromise my scientific data because a prosecutor wants to hear something different.”
Gus Olympidis, Founder and CEO
Family Express, Valparaiso
The rags-to-riches story of Gus Olympidis is remarkable enough to earn him a place among the Society of Innovators. He arrived in the United States from Greece as a teenager with $40 in his pocket. Today, he heads a chain a 54 convenience stores with sales of more than $300 million.
Olympidis is proud of his company, but he's not comfortable in the limelight. He is the anti-Donald Trump. “I think the Donald Trump model is giving business people a bad name. I'm not interested in that, but it's hard to avoid.”
Olympidis deflects credit aimed at him to the people who work for Family Express.
“The honor is a little overwhelming,” says Olympidis. “It's very appreciated, but it's very difficult for me to talk about it. It should be an award for Family Express. The organization should be at the center.”
But Olympidis says the recognition reinforces “what we've been preaching around here for a long time.” He says Family Express has done a lot of things right, and one of the most important was finding a way to successfully compete in an industry where major oil companies have their convenience stores.
Family Express measures up against global competitors by using its nationally recognized business model of highly efficient logistics; unique brands, including the “Living Brand” for customer service; and a new $4 million headquarters/training center.
Family Express did that by creating its own brands from ice to coffee to baked goods.
Olympidis says that also includes “the family brand” in which all employees are thoroughly vetted in order to work for the company. “We hire only one out of every 50 people we interview. We want a person we can entrust to deal with the public.”
Olympidis also created a streamlined system in which store deliveries were cut from as many as 30 a week to seven.
“That means the items at Family Express are always fresh, and that's not something you normally expect at a convenience store,” says Olympidis. “What we do is unique. We have 25 million customer impacts a year and we have a $75 million tax impact in the local communities we serve.”
Olga Petryszyn, Executive Broker
Re/Max Affiliates, Valparaiso
Olga Petryszyn is a successful real estate broker in Valparaiso, but it's not her career that has drawn notice. It's her passion for hybridizing hostas. Her love of gardening led her to create new varieties of hostas that are now fixtures in home gardens across the United States and around the world.
“This was a total surprise for me,” says Petryszyn. “I look at myself as a gardener. This is a passion of mine. This isn't rocket science and those are the people I always thought were innovators.”
She says she didn't think something she did for fun was innovative, but it has been since the day in 1985 when she met William Brincka of Chesterton, who had a garden full of different hosta varieties. She says she was fascinated by the plant's beauty. Petryszyn already knew how to create day lily hybrids and wondered if she could do the same with hostas.
“When you hybridize, you are purposely taking pollen from one and placing it on another to create something specific,” she says. But it isn't easy and it doesn't always work. Petryszyn says it can take up to seven years before a plant is producing seeds on its own.
At that point, Petryszyn registers the plant and begins selling tissue sample to seed catalogs. In turn, the samples are sold to greenhouses, which sell trays to wholesalers, which then sell to retailers. The price is marked up along the way. Petryszyn receives a few cents from the greenhouses, but ultimately, retailers sell her plants for as much as $20. “It's pennies for each plant; the money is nil,” she says. “I'll never make a living from it, but it pays for my hobby.”
Petryszyn doesn't mind. “I'm thrilled because these plants will live on after I'm gone,” she says. Of the 24 hosta plants that she has created and registered, 22 of them are in production around the world.
Dr. Eugene Smotkin, CEO
NuVant Systems Inc., Crown Point
NuVant Systems Inc. recently moved into a 7,000-square-foot building in Crown Point, where it will make components that will produce fuel cells. Founder and CEO Eugene Smotkin is a pioneer in creating the devices that could revolutionize the energy business.
“I was surprised by being named a Fellow,” says Smotkin, who also is a professor at Northeastern University in Boston. “I wasn't expecting anything like this. It is a fabulous feeling.”
One reason Smotkin says he's so pleased is that employees at his company are like family to him, and recognition of the work they do shows how much their dedication is appreciated.
“This gives credibility to our company,” Smotkin says.
NuVant's fuel cell device converts chemical energy from a fuel into electricity through a chemical reaction with oxygen or another oxidizing agent. It's a potential breakthrough that will have an impact on automobiles and could ease the country from its dependence on oil.
Development was done at the Purdue Technology Center, where NuVant was the first tenant. “The transition from research to a product is very exciting,” says Smotkin. “For most researchers, the reward is a journal article explaining their research. But I feel if it's worth it, it should have an impact on people.”
Smotkin describes his employees as key to the whole process. “It takes years to build a team. They implement the ideas and they implement their own ideas. They can do on-the-fly customization for our customers and that's important in this field.”
NuVant's work can be used by the automotive industry and by power plants. Smotkin has one customer in Brazil that's investing heavily in NuVant. “When I put these products out there, there are demands from users to make them more versatile. We respond by making them better and making them do what our customers want them to do.”
Center for Innovation through Visualization and Simulation (CIVS)
Purdue University Calumet, Hammond
Chanute Prize, Co-Recipient
With its new 6,300-square-foot research center and a 70-seat theater for advanced research projects and 3-D virtual classrooms, the Center for Innovation through Visualization and Simulation is no longer a concept. It's technology that's been embraced by the private sector and has saved clients more than $30 million.
Since CIVS opened last October, more than 5,800 people have visited to learn about its potential. Dr. Chenn Q. Zhou, director of CIVS, says the Chanute Prize is recognition of the quality work the team has accomplished. Other team members are John Moreland, senior research scientist; Bin Wu, research engineer; Doreen Gonzalez-Gaboyan, outreach and development; Linda Robinson, administrative assistant; and Armin Silean, a post-doctoral researcher.
“We're all very honored and humbled,” says Zhou. “I'm happy for my team and the university. It's also wonderful for our students.”
Zhou says the recognition raises the profile of Purdue Calumet and CIVS. The center uses visualization and simulation technology to solve real-world problems from working with NIPSCO on designing a virtual power plant in which to train employees to a virtual hospital to train health care workers.
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson asked the visualization and simulation team to look at plans for the Gary/Chicago International Airport. The CIVS team looked at runway expansion and development plans to help the city explain more precisely to contractors what needed to be done.
Zhou says CIVS has the potential to play a major role in economic development through improved decision-making and problem-solving. At the same time, the center is training a new generation of innovators and changing the image of Northwest Indiana.
“For the future, we'll keep moving and we'll keep focusing on technology. No matter what the area, we can integrate this into the decision-making process,” says Zhou.
ArcelorMittal Global R&D Center, East Chicago
Chanute Prize, Co-Recipient
Research by ArcelorMittal's Global R&D Center has transformed the automotive industry and has kept steel as a major player in the industry. Dr. Richard Sussman, general manager of the center, says it wasn't long ago that steelmakers were considering aluminum and composite plastics to replace steel in cars.
Now, the R&D Center has created new steel alloys leading to new uses for steel. So far, the research has made cars lighter and stronger while saving automakers–and consumers–money.
“We're very honored and appreciative of the honor,” says Sussman. “This is additional reinforcement that this project is important in Northwest Indiana.” Team members in East Chicago were Dr. Blake Zuidema, director of Automotive Product Applications; Paul Schurter, section leader, Steel Solutions and Co-Engineering; Mike Gulas, project manager, Steel Solutions and Co-Engineering; and Tim Lim, projects manager, Steel Solutions and Co-Engineering.
For years, steelmakers only tinkered with the formula to make steel, but “S-in motion” took a giant leap, says Sussman. “These steel products weren't even thought of then, yet they're what we're producing today.”
To convince automakers, Sussman says ArcelorMittal built a prototype car out of its new steel and took it around the world to show Ford, General Motors, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, BMW and Mercedes. The amount of steel in a car increased, yet there wasn't an increased cost because the steel was lighter. By reducing the car's weight, Sussman says it will help automakers achieve government fuel mileage mandates of more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025.
“S-in motion” designers in East Chicago and at ArcelorMittal's headquarters in Belgium met over two years to complete the project. Sussman says it meant coming up with new ways of communicating and new ways of thinking about how to bring a product to market. “That's why we built the demonstration car. Without it, I don't think automakers would have paid as much attention.”