Current Edition >Last updated on Sunday, March 4, 2012, 12:04 pm
Ty McNutt, left, director of business development, and engineer Edgar Cilio are part of APEI Inc.'s growing employee base.
by Luke Jones
A growing research and development company in Fayetteville is providing a place for the state’s electrical engineers to thrive.
The story of Arkansas Power Electronics International Inc., a recent finalist for Arkansas Business’ business of the year award, began with electrical engineer Kraig Olejniczak (pronounced oh-leh-KNEE-check). In the 1990s, he was an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas, but had always wanted to try his hand at business.
“In high school, I competed in the [Future Business Leaders of America],” he said. “I competed nationally in my senior year. I was always interested in business.”
John White, UA’s chancellor at the time, approached Olejniczak with an idea.
“He was really big on economic development for the state of Arkansas,” Olejniczak said. “At that time, he thought it would be a good idea for the faculty if we had a business incubator.”
Using the university’s incubator as a springboard, Olejniczak kicked off a consulting firm that eventually became APEI. He started with 100 SF of office space.
“It wasn’t really that long before we actually had a project,” he said, adding his first client was Ducommun LaBarge Technologies in Huntsville.
Olejniczak quickly encountered a roadblock, though. Indiana’s Valparaiso University, his alma mater, offered him a job as dean of its college of engineering. Olejniczak was stuck. To take the job, which he wanted, Olejniczak would need to abandon his business, which he also wanted.
Luck, however, was on his side.
One of Olejniczak’s former students, Alex Lostetter, showed interest in heading up APEI.
“He was one of the best theoretical and hands-on students I’ve ever had,” Olejniczak said. “And I think I have a pretty good eye for talent. It was a perfect situation for him to step in and take over the business.”
In August 2002, Olejniczak left Fayetteville for Valparaiso. Since then, Lostetter has been captain of the ship.
Lostetter immediately began transferring his Ph.D. research into his business model. The company became APEI, and its work truly began.
“Power electronics” are parts used in almost any industrial technology. Anyone using a laptop computer is familiar with the boxlike object attached to the AC adaptor — that’s a power electronics system.
“What it does is it takes the type of power that comes out of the wall and converts it into the type of power the electronics in laptops can use,” Lostetter said.
APEI’s work goes far beyond laptop computers.
“We do military systems, aircraft, hybrid vehicles, satellites, spacecraft, things like that,” Lostetter said. “On a satellite, you have a solar array that turns power into electricity. Then you need to change that into a form that computers and electronics can use.
“We focus on making things small, lightweight, highly efficient. We’re in a brand new, state-of-the-art type of technology we’re developing.”
APEI handles clients both from the government and the private sectors. The company’s main commercial client is Toyota USA, and it also is teamed up with Rohm Co. Ltd., a large electronic parts supplier in Japan.
Many APEI products are designed for the U.S. military, specifically the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research Development & Engineering Center. APEI’s products frequently are tested and optimized for the military, then further designed for commercial use.
“Our goal is, after we get it into high-performing systems, we’ll expand the volume we can do, drive the costs down and get into more everyday uses,” Lostetter said. “In the next five years or so, we’ll be getting into some more commercial uses.”
APEI has little in the way of stateside competition. Baldor Electric Co. of Fort Smith creates motor drives, which also involve power electronics. Even so, there’s not much overlap.