When you’re just starting out in business, the road has plenty of bumps. When you throw in COVID-19, it becomes a wild ride.
So said Dugan Karnazes, founder and CEO of Velocity Research, in a recent conversation with the Business Journal.
Karnazes, a 2017 graduate of Grand Valley State University with a B.S.E. in electrical and electronics engineering, founded Velocity Research in 2018 as a network of freelancers tag-teaming on projects. At the time, he was working full time in Amway’s research and development department. By June 2019, he had decided to shift Velocity to an exclusive focus on engineering, which is the field most of the freelancers in the network represented. He made the switch — and jumped into business full time without a day job — eight months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Michigan.
Since then, he brought on two partners, Nathan LaWarre and Ross Miller, as well as a business development consultant, Trevor McMahon, and moved the company into a new space at 4616 44th St. SE in Kentwood.
Eight months into the pandemic, the business is starting to take on a more defined shape.
While many of the specific projects the company does are confidential, Velocity Research in general does research, development and prototyping in the areas of electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and firmware engineering. Firmware is software that provides low-level control for specific hardware such as microcontrollers, or chips. The projects Velocity does are in the areas of consumer electronics and testing automation electronics.
When the pandemic started, the company had just a few projects, and its clients quickly started postponing or canceling due to the uncertainty of COVID-19 times and the resulting economic downturn.
This left Karnazes with a choice. He could spend all his energy trying to find new clients, or he could jump into the COVID-19 PPE-making efforts — for free — to help out and build connections. He chose the latter, and soon found himself collaborating on the Open-Source Ventilator Project, an effort to provide supplemental ventilators for underserved communities.
“When we found that, it was a couple people in Ireland, and the goal there was to address the looming ventilator shortage that was going on at the time,” Karnazes said. “We wanted to help out in designing an alternative option — just something that was not going to be a full-fledged ventilator, but if someone didn’t have anything, it was better than them just suffocating in their chair. We started developing this device, and that group actually grew to about 3,000 people across the world — truly across the world. It was a really exciting project to be a part of; (the project sponsor and electronics design software maker) Altium did a whole documentary on it.”
Velocity also got involved with a local effort called 3Dc19, a coalition of West Michigan businesses and organizations that leveraged their 3D printers to make and distribute thousands of face shields for frontline workers.
But Velocity didn’t stop there.
“The other thing that continued to happen just beyond that project is we started feeling the crunch of people’s budgets being tighter, the global supply chain being interrupted … we do a lot of electronics work, and as you can imagine, what goes on in China has a huge impact on that entire industry,” Karnazes said.
“So, the next project that we started (doing) was trying to lessen our dependence on Chinese manufacturing, especially for electronics. But again, being new and a little bit scrappy, we didn’t have the budget to put in our own electronics assembly line, but we did have enough to start building our own robots. And that is the project that we’re currently working on now, just building our own (pick-and-place) prototype machine to assemble these electronics. A lot of our customers only need a few (small-scale circuit) boards for prototyping, and they only have to last a short amount of time. So, it’s not production grade, and we’re not saying that it is; however, we are able to do electronics assembly right here in Grand Rapids and do it very quickly.”
Karnazes said participating in the Open-Source Ventilator Project put Velocity Research on the map, and the company soon started getting calls from out-of-state companies to do other projects for them. Velocity is seeing a steady flow of organic business from that and is currently working on about 12 different projects.
Eventually, Karnazes said he would like Velocity Research to grow into a one-stop-shop for designing, building and manufacturing full products.
For now, Velocity is working on smaller scale projects, like an IoT control module with a touch screen and user interface to run connected appliances, Karnazes said.
Velocity also built a test automation system, including a motherboard and customizable expansion modules, for Superior Integrated Systems (SIS), another tenant in the building where Velocity’s shop is.
Velocity previously shared space with Inductive Intelligence, at 401 Hall St. SW, and now shares space with SIS. Karnazes said these collaborations have been crucial to Velocity’s maturation as a company.
“In West Michigan, the automation industry is big; there are a lot of manufacturers here. What SIS does is they design custom equipment for testing the result of those production lines. So, the production line makes whatever device. SIS makes a system to test that, to make sure that all came out (to standards). What we design for SIS is custom electronics to meet those needs, because everything they do is a one-off thing. Being able to make it exactly what it needs to be is really important to their business, and we help them do that.”
Karnazes said he has learned a lot while in COVID-19 mode, including how important cloud-based software is with people working primarily remotely, as well as how to collaborate safely on in-person projects with physical distancing.
But he said the biggest silver lining once operations went fully digital was realizing geographic boundaries don’t matter much.
“It’s just as easy for us to pick up a client in California or Europe or China; whereas, before I was only thinking that the way to do sales was to go and physically meet people and focus on just what’s in West Michigan,” he said. “But COVID has taught us that you can run your business in West Michigan, still capitalize on the companies and the resources that are available here, but in terms of bringing new business in, geography really doesn’t matter that much.”
Although operating digitally brings an endless pool of potential clients, it also brings all the competition in the world, so Karnazes said another thing he learned is the importance of establishing credibility by using proper SEO and website copywriting, and participating as a thought leader in industry discussions to develop trust with potential clients.
With a global shortage of electrical engineers, Karnazes said he also has been learning the importance of getting connected with colleges and universities by sponsoring student projects and creating a potential hiring pipeline.
And with no end to COVID-19 in sight, he said he also is focusing more on helping people navigate the current reality — keeping an eye on productivity, but also morale and positivity.
“What can I, as an employer, do to help out my team? Those are the things that I try and think about now.”