Alex Frommeyer is lounging on a lopsided computer chair, sipping tap water out of a 2007 Kentucky Derby glass. The mid-afternoon sun warms his makeshift workspace—which also happens to be his living room—but he's bundled in a scarf and coat. Even on this frigid January day, a 26-year-old entrepreneur needs to save money where he can.
With its mismatched furniture, bare walls, and decorative bourbon bottles, the Texas Avenue building, located in the heart of Germantown near downtown Louisville, Ky., is reminiscent of a college student’s apartment. It's cozy, relaxed. It almost seems as though Frommeyer, or "Fro," as he prefers to be called, is enjoying a snow day like the rest of Louisville, except for the noises in this lab: The continual ding of Android notifications, emails pushing through his several desktops, and most notably, the constant hum of the MakerBot 3D printer.
This is the office of Beam Technologies, which Frommeyer founded in 2011 with two of his friends while they were seniors in college at the University of Louisville's Speed School of Engineering. Their first product, Beam Brush, is a connected toothbrush that tracks brushing behavior such as length of time and efficiency so consumers and dentists can analyze the data and make meaningful changes. For more than two years, Frommeyer, Alex Curry, and Dan Dykes have worked up to this point: selling out of the first round of product and deciding what to do next as a company.
However, there's one aspect of Beam Technologies that won't change. Frommeyer will lay it on the table for anyone, even if it’s just to see their reaction.
He's doing it all from Kentucky.
"To be another startup in San Francisco is mildly interesting, but to change the face of how the Louisville economy can look in the future and do my startup is much more interesting," he said.
One conversation with Frommeyer will prove that he's an engineer. He fidgets, tinkers, and anxiously anticipates his next move. But he speaks with the steady pace of a seasoned businessman. One without an MBA, that is. Not that it has mattered much throughout the last few years; Frommeyer was named one of Business First of Louisville's 40 Under 40, has won several startup and entrepreneurial awards, and has been featured in Forbes, Mashable, Time, and Fast Company.
He also has the humility of a small-town entrepreneur and the enthusiasm of a millennial that is sorely passionate about his city. Frommeyer said that 80 percent of his motive for Beam Technologies is personal. "I want to advance my career, learn new things, build new things, make some money," he said. But the other 20 percent is all about bettering Louisville as a city and turning it into a technology hub.
"Louisville needs to have—and this is also true of many other cities—people that want to take risks and try to achieve paradigm-shifting things, which we are interested in doing," he said. “And those people need to stick around.”
Flashing a sheepish grin, he half-jokes he's committed to his own detriment. Many VCs will not fund the company because of its location. But Frommeyer said he is willing to go through "additional pain" to stay in this city, and he hopes his model will be replicated around the country, especially in places like Detroit.
Techies may need to pause for a moment to digest these facts: The three young men work in a duplex above Miss Kay's Hair Studio in a relatively isolated residential neighborhood, surrounded by family-owned hardware stores and restaurants. Why? For them, it’s simple. They want Beam Technologies to be the face of Louisville's revitalization.
"Several times a day you can find Alex and me fully engaged in debates about the future impact of cutting edge tech," Dykes said. "Above all else we want to play a role in shaping what that future looks like."
Dykes and Frommeyer live together and are almost inseparable on any given day, whether that's working in the lab at their homemade standing desks, discussing tactics at the dirty, white card table-turned conference table (it's also seemingly their dinner table), or watching television on the same plaid couch from their college apartment. After years as business partners and friends, Frommeyer says they still don't have a systematic formula for solving problems, but he knows to ask strategic questions to get Dykes and Curry to find answers.
"That makes no sense unless you've seen it," he admitted. But without realizing it, the three have created a problem-solving technique involving a series of questions and answers that utilizes each of their strengths: Frommeyer's business mind and hands-on approach to the product; Dykes' focus on the technical aspects of projects; Curry's work with intellectual property and product design.
This rapport, along with keen senses of purpose within the company and an appetite to grow, has kept them close since they were sophomores at U of L, doing homework for engineering classes.
After college, Beam Technologies opened an office in a recently renovated part of Louisville called NuLu that has since become its most trendy and eclectic. As much as Frommeyer adored the neighborhood, his pioneer spirit nagged at him until he realized he could recreate a similar momentum in another area of town with his new technology business. So he moved it. This philosophy has led him to become a board member of the community council in his neighborhood and write about issues affecting young entrepreneurs in Louisville and beyond.
Staying in Louisville—particularly in the neighborhood he chose—is partially to prove that startups don't have to be in Seattle, Austin, and San Francisco to succeed. It's mostly about benefitting a city that has supported Frommeyer since he was a 21-year-old student telling the mayor his plans over coffee and receiving funding from investors who hope to turn a Southern town into a vibrant 21st century city.
Another motivation is to shake things up. Frommeyer hopes to inspire other engineers and entrepreneurs throughout the world and keep up the candid, honest culture of technology.
"If it was just about making a toothbrush, would it have survived as long as it has? I don't know."
Always the questions guy.
- Beam Brush' lets you share hygiene data with dentists
- Invasion of the Internet of Things
- Alex Frommeyer: "A daring entrepreneur with an innovative product can't run 'lean'"
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.