For electronics engineers, taking a design from the drawing board to a prototype means one of two things: a lot of soldering, or fussing with a complex and restrictive “breadboard.” , with his company 5eTek, wants to make tinkering with circuits as simple as playing with Legos.
Anyone who has taken an electronics class may be reminded of a breadboard, which also is a plastic grid into which components can be plugged. However, the basic breadboard, designed in the 1970s, has fixed columns and strips into which the components can be plugged. This can make it more difficult to design complex circuits, and it also makes it hard to troubleshoot a problem in the circuit. The 5E Board allows the user to place components anywhere.
In fact, it was his daughter’s plastic bricks that inspired Chen to create his 5E Board invention many years ago when he was studying for his doctorate at the University of Minnesota. The 5EBoard is one of those inventions that’s so simple it’s hard to believe no one had thought of it before. Each board is a waffle-like plastic grid. Electronic components such as wires, resistors, capacitors, batteries, microchips, lights, and so forth, can plug into the grid and to each other just like Legos.
“It’s a solderless circuit board,” Chen says. “You can play with it and build all types of circuits. It’s flexible. You can follow a circuit diagram easily.”
Chen is marketing his invention to educators, and has already had some success. NJIT, University of Pennsylvania, and the College of New Jersey are already using Chen’s 5E Boards in their electronics classes. Montgomery High School has also bought 5E Boards, and Chen hopes to introduce his product into other high schools as well.
The company, founded last year, is the first business Chen has ever run. It has a small team of employees in China, where the boards are manufactured, one person in California, and five — mostly interns — in the Tamarack Circle office where Chen works. His wife, Kejian Xiao, operates an acupuncture clinic next door.
“I’m not drawing a salary from the company right now, so I’m basically working full time for free,” he says. But being in business has its own unique rewards, even if the money isn’t yet flowing in. “You see something you created going into the world,” he says. “You see so many people interested in your products. Every day you are excited to go to work, and you want to go to the office all the time.”
Chen grew up in Shaoshan, China, (the hometown of Chairman Mao) where his father was a physics teacher and later superintendent of the local school district. His mother was an electrical engineer. In 1989, following the student uprising and subsequent Tiennamen Square massacre, Chen moved to the U.S. to pursue a doctorate in electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota.
It was there that he was inspired to create his lego circuit board. He still has the prototype, which is made out of actual legos, sitting in his office.
But Chen put his invention on hold while he pursued an academic career. He became an expert in nanotechnology, and was responsible for building the Center for Imaging and Mesoscale Structure at Harvard University. He eventually became director of nanotechnology licensing at the Center for Technology Transfer at the University of Pennsylvania. His only foray into business was in the early 2000s when he co-founded a company called NanoOpto, which used nano devices in fiber-optics applications. The company didn’t make it through the collapse of the nanotech boom.
As Chen entered a late period in his career, he realized if he was going to make his circuit board invention a reality, he would have to do it soon. “I’ve had this invention for a long time,” he says. “I have reached the point that I’m old enough that if I don’t try to do it now, I will probably never have a chance to do it. I started to focus on this project, and raised $500,000 to found this place and patent the idea.”
Although Chen is an expert in technology, he has had to learn how to run a business on a fly. Even at NanoOpto, he says he focused on developing the technology and let his partner worry about the business side. Now, everything from paying the electric bill to improving his product design is in his hands. “Only 20 percent of the work is working on the product,” he says. `The rest is tedious manufacturing and legal issues. Through this process I’ve learned a lot.”
The patent is pending, Chen says. He launched the product in December, and he says he has seen a lot of interest in it from educators, and that it has gotten a huge response at trade shows. The boards are sold by Amazon and a few local retailers.
When he’s not dealing with tedious paperwork, Chen says he is hard at work on the next generation of the 5E Board, which will use magnets. In the meantime, he is looking for ways to reach out to schools. He is especially interested in getting the next generation of American students to be as interested in electronics engineering as they are in computing. He is worried that students only know how to use computers, but not how they work.
“They have no clue what the hardware is doing,” he says. “They just play with the programs.”
Chen says he wants to offer his product at a discount to schools or nonprofit groups that serve disadvantaged communities, especially African-American and Latino students.
Chen hopes to get kids interested in engineering by making electronics prototyping more like playing with legos. “I think electrical engineering has the highest potential for employment in the U.S.,” he says. “However, 70 percent of engineering graduates are from foreign countries. Young children don’t have the exposure early enough to electronics engineering.”
5eTek, 118 Tamarack Circle, Skillman 08558; 609-385-9629; Erli Chen, president and CEO. www.5etek.com.