What keeps Alan Bignall ’85 M.B.A. going and going and going? In a word: passion. A quick glance at his LinkedIn profile shows that he is a very busy man, but he involves himself in things that permit him to pursue his passions: entrepreneurial ventures, helping others and baseball. Bignall speaks about everything he does with enthusiasm, even when he has a cold, as he did during a recent interview.
Bignall is, first and foremost, president and CEO of ReconRobotics Inc., a company that creates tactical micro-robot systems used by the military, law enforcement and rescue teams. Bignall and his entire team are devoted to increasing the safety of military and law enforcement personnel and other responders through robots that are increasingly sophisticated. Currently, their robots can explore an environment that might be dangerous for humans to enter and provide auditory and visual feedback, even in complete darkness. Some robots are designed to examine the undercarriage of a vehicle for explosives or narcotics. The robots have become increasingly advanced since the company was founded in 2006, and they will continue to provide improved information as more sensors are added for hazards such as radiological, chemical and biological threats.
These innovations have led to lots of attention for this relatively small company. Fast Company named it to its annual list of the most innovative companies in both 2012 and 2013, and in 2011 Popular Science named the Recon Scout XT micro-robot one of the top 100 tech innovations of that year. Bignall himself received the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business 2011 Entrepreneur Alumnus of the Year Award. Bignall attributes ReconRobotics’ success to the fact that what his company does – saving lives – creates enthusiastic employees. “Passion drives us and coalesces around our goals,” he explained. “You can always hire smart people, but how do you get passion and a drive to make a difference?”
The employees at ReconRobotics are indeed enthusiastic about delivering products that provide advance warning to those who put themselves in harm’s way in their line of work. Aimee Barmore, a St. Thomas M.B.A. student and director of the law enforcement and federal programs North American sales team, said that passion inspires her work. “Alan and I were at a trade show in California,” she said. “A soldier came up and said, ‘Sir, Ma’am, I have to say this thing [one of the robots] is awesome. It saved my life. Thank you, thank you, thank you!’” Hearing stories like this makes her proud of her work.
Bignall has been with the company since it was formed by a University of Minnesota professor and students who wanted to commercialize their work. Recently, ReconRobotics turned to the work of students again. As a result of a senior-year engineering project that involved designing a landing system for unmanned aerial vehicles, four St. Thomas students formed a company, Xollai, to further develop their initial idea and to create additional products. ReconRobotics purchased Xollai because, Bignall said, the young alumni who created it were a very innovative group. “They had potential patents. They had great ideas that solved key user problems.”
During a 2009 interview for St. Thomas magazine, Bignall said that the state of Minnesota had the opportunity to become “Robotics Alley” due to its positioning in miniatures, motors and electronics. His vision led to the founding of Robotics Alley, a public and private initiative that hosts an annual robotics conference in the Twin Cities.
To make a point, Bignall made a comparison between hockey and robotics. “We spend enormous amounts on youth hockey. Why not on robotics?” he asked, noting that there are now more high school robotics teams than hockey teams. A strong robotics industry could bring 10,000 high-paying jobs to Minnesota, he said. Robotics Alley brings together academic, business and government leaders to build on Minnesota’s already solid presence in the industry.
The desire to promote the robotics industry in Minnesota is also behind the Global Robotics Innovation Park (GRIP), a planned research park and business incubator in the Twin Cities. Tenants will include companies and academic research institutions. ReconRobotics and Robotics Alley are both partnering with GRIP to encourage the development of Minnesota’s robotics industry. For Bignall, ReconRobotics’ investment in outside projects such as Robotics Alley and GRIP are important. “This is about being a leader. If you want to make a difference, you need to reach beyond the edges of your business.”
While leading ReconRobotics, Bignall has channeled his enormous energy into other projects as well. In 2010, he co-founded Biolyst, LLC, with his chiropractor, Tim Kelm, who had successfully treated Bignall’s peripheral neuropathy with lasers. “Peripheral neuropathy is extremely debilitating. The Mayo Clinic told me there was no treatment,” Bignall said. After finding relief through laser therapy, he asked Kelm to join him in founding a company that would provide this treatment through franchise Realief Neuropathy Centers. There are now three Realief Neuropathy Centers, located in Minnesota, Arizona and South Carolina, and more will be opening soon. Bignall isn’t running the business, but he is excited to be a part of it as a founder and board member. “I love businesses where you can help people,” he said.
Bignall also loves the game of baseball. “Did he tell you how he wants to die?” Barmore asked. “He wants to be seated at a baseball game, eating a hot dog and drinking beer.” It should be no surprise that such a dedicated fan of baseball owns the Albany Dutchmen, a team belonging to the New York Collegiate Baseball League. Bignall, who dreams of owning a minor-league team, said, “I love business and the game. Owning the Albany Dutchmen has been a chance to learn the business of baseball.” He doesn’t attend games as often as he would like, but he watches his team on the Internet.
On top of all this, Bignall recently finished serving as entrepreneur in residence at St. Thomas, a volunteer position that entailed being available to help students and faculty at the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship in the Opus College of Business. “I was available to mentor groups and individuals and to guest speak as needed,” he said. “I was not there as a teacher; I was there to boost the program, and I helped raise money for it.”
Before he joined ReconRobotics, Bignall worked for other companies, both large and small, including Rolls-Royce, IDS, Fingerhut and Visual Interactions Inc. When asked about the high points and low points of his career, he was characteristically optimistic. “I am generally high on life,” he said. For him, the challenging situations one can face at work are merely opportunities to learn. His lowest point was probably at a time when he was between businesses. “I had no team, no energy,” he said. “I wasn’t surrounded by smart people. I’m energized by dealing with entrepreneurs.”
He pours this energy back into the people around him. “I have had such a wonderful professional life,” he said. “I want to make other people successful. Personal recognition is nice, but that’s not what I’m looking for. I’m looking for how to help people.” He added, “I’m always looking for new businesses to start. They just pop up all the time.”
Jack Klobucar, marketing director at ReconRobotics, has noticed Bignall’s investment in people. “What really separates him from others is the way he thinks and runs his business. He focuses on two groups. First, he focuses on the customer. If a customer has a problem, we’ll fix it immediately. Not tomorrow; today. There’s no one like that in the industry. We have a loyal customer base. Second, he focuses on each employee. He feels that if he can help an individual to be challenged and to grow, everything else takes care of itself. This is highly unusual. I’ve consulted with dozens of companies. Most CEOs focus on numbers, but Alan focuses on the individual customer and the individual employee.” He noted that Bignall’s focus on these two groups has had a ripple effect, making the other stakeholders happy, including shareholders.
Bignall gives in part because he is grateful for what he has received from others. “I haven’t had just one or two mentors,” he said. “I’ve had hundreds of mentors. I try to listen to advice from everybody, and I try to be self-aware. I have a rule: If something’s not working, it’s always my fault.” Barmore has seen this in him. “He’s not a know-it-all,” she said.
The result of Bignall’s humility, energy, vision and focus on the individual is a successful work team that has fun while delivering results. “From day one, he wanted to create a business where he would like to work,” Klobucar said. “He looks at it through the eyes of the employee.” And, he noted, the employees respond: “We’re all in this together, creating something entirely new.”
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