He exchanged teacher's hat for mini-turbines

  • Article by: DICK YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 2, 2010 - 8:58 PM

In going to school on wind power, an educator turns entrepreneur.

Michael Arquin of St. Paul is seen here with one of the miniature wind turbines he sells to teachers for classroom experiments, demonstrations and projects.

Photo: Dick Youngblood, Star Tribune

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To hear Michael Arquin tell it, he's more of a dreamer than a businessman -- and he has a P&L statement showing a modest 8 percent return on revenue to prove it.

But that's OK, because he's on a mission to educate teachers and their students about the science of alternative energy, specifically wind power, which means that he provides a sizable chunk of his offerings free of charge.

Arquin, 39, is founder and director of KidWind Project Inc., a St. Paul company that offers free lesson plans and 30 to 40 teacher workshops a year to promote what he calls "the elegance of wind power."

In the process, however, he has built a business that grossed $1.1 million in 2009 from the sale of a growing line of miniature wind turbines that teachers buy for classroom experiments, demonstrations and science fair projects that explore such "elegant" matters as blade design, gear ratios and aerodynamics.

Of the 16 wind-energy kits the company offers at its online store, 10 are proprietary, most of them the product of Arquin's "tinkering and inventing." The company also offers a half-dozen solar kits that allow students to amuse themselves with such tricks as charging their cell phones or powering model boats with the help of Old Sol.

Last year's gross grew an eye-fetching 88 percent from $585,000 in 2008, never mind the crippling recession. Since 2005, KidWind's first full year in business, revenue has grown at a compound annual rate of better than 90 percent.

I can think of a few Wall Street bankers who should be such lousy businessmen.

Nonetheless, Arquin insists that "I'm not in this for the money; I'm in it to promote better education. The money's more of an accident."

As a matter of fact, so is the business.

Arquin was a sixth-grade science teacher in northern California who indulged his "personal curiosity" about alternative energy with sections on solar energy and hydropower. When he sought to add wind energy to the curriculum, he was disappointed by the high cost and low quality of the limited offerings available.

So, when his wife, Roopali, won a research grant to Harvard University, Arquin wangled a one-year fellowship from Tufts University to develop a wind-energy curriculum.

The initial objective was to help him teach wind energy in his own classroom, Arquin said. But then he began offering the material to other science teachers via the Internet, and the response was impressive.

When his wife took a job as assistant professor of environmental studies at Macalester College in 2004, Arquin invested $1,000 in materials to begin developing wind-energy kits and started the business in the basement of their St. Paul home.

Trade shows pay off

The response since then offers an idea of the KidWind's popularity: Its website averages 1,000 hits a day. And for a new collection of lesson plans recently introduced, there were 500 downloads in the first month.

Odds are, the numbers will grow with the impending addition of interactive online games and quizzes to help promote kid interest in wind power, plus a new feature called KidWind community that allows teachers to share details of wind projects and related student activities.

Despite the apparent success, Arquin contends that he's not a businessman. Instead, he credits his father-in-law, Dilip Phadke, a senior executive at Hewlett-Packard Co., with helping him keep the business afloat.

In telephone conversations and on several visits to the Twin Cities each year, Phadke has helped Arquin "identify and prioritize challenges" and develop marketing strategies and a business plan. He also helped make KidWind's website "more compelling and easier to use," as Phadke put it.

"I mostly listen, ask awkward questions and provide examples to clarify the pros and cons of alternatives," Phadke said. And the result? "Mike not only is learning quickly, I find him applying the basic concepts ... we have discussed to day-to-day issues," he said.

Example: Arquin regarded trade shows as a waste of time and money, but finally agreed with Phadke to give it a try at a national show in Boston early in 2008. The result was a significant jump in sales in the weeks following the show, which Arquin said helped nearly double Kidwind's gross last year.

Trade shows are now an integral part of the company's marketing strategy.

"Mike is a smart and savvy entrepreneur with many latent business-executive skills," Phadke said. "The company he has put together has great potential, given the current global focus on alternative energy, science education and green jobs."

Arquin has a slightly different, more facetious take on the mentoring relationship, however: Phadke's periodic visits, he said with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, are "three days of barking -- and wishing I'd gone to business school."

Oh yes, they're also "invaluable."

Dick Youngblood • 612-673-4439 • yblood@startribune.com

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