Allison Horner graduated from the University of Tulsa in 2011 with a BS in mechanical engineering, and then earned MS and PhD degrees from Syracuse University. Today, Horner works as the chief technology officer at Berd Spokes in Minneapolis. Berd is a small business that is disrupting the bicycle wheel industry with their lightweight polymer spokes that beat out steel in terms of strength, weight, and vibration damping performance. Professor William LePage had a chance to catch up with Allison this summer, and here’s what she had to say.
LePage: What is your current position, and how did your experience at TU help you prepare for this career?
Horner: I am the chief technology officer at Berd Spokes, a startup that produces high performance bicycle spokes from Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene rope. Since it’s a small business, I do about 25% CTO-type work like business planning and developing our technology roadmap, and about 75% regular engineering work. I currently have five on the engineering team, and most of our effort is spent on improving and automating the manufacturing processes that produce the spokes. I fabricate and assemble a lot of the parts I design myself, which is exactly what I learned how to do at TU — in the North Campus Machine Shop, in rural China as part of TU’s TURC program, in senior design class, and as an undergraduate researcher for Dr. Henshaw. It can be difficult to find engineers who are competent at hands on-work. For a lot of larger companies it makes sense to have greater divisions in employee skill sets – having engineers engineer and fabricators fabricate — but for our small business we need the flexibility of a few people wearing a lot of hats, and I can do my job specifically because of the training I received at TU.
WL: As a college student, did you know that your current job was one that you would enjoy, or did you envision yourself doing something different?
AH: When I was an undergrad, I thought I wanted to work at a national lab as a researcher. I never wanted to work in management or business development. My first job out of graduate school was doing R&D at Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita, Kansas, which is very similar to what I wanted to do at a national lab, only in industry. I really enjoyed the technology development work, but was often frustrated by my inability to affect change in such a large organization. When I joined Berd as CTO, I was the fourth employee. I had the title in part because there wasn’t anyone else in the engineering department yet. We now have 16 employees and I’ve grown to enjoy the management and business development aspects of my job, which I never expected.
WL: What is one thing from TU that you absolutely treasured?
AH: When I was an undergrad at TU, there was a basic prototyping lab in the engineering building, but no true machine shop. The North Campus Machine Shop is where we did all the hands-on work on projects – senior design and various undergraduate research projects. Terry and Dave worked in the machine shop, and they were just the best humans, teachers, machinists, and for me (who had work study in the machine shop one semester) bosses. They also had a shop cat named When, so if someone asked “when” a job was going to be done, they could say “I don’t know, go ask him.” I learned so much from the two of them that I’ve used my entire career; how to design something so it can be fabricated, how to treat people with respect while keeping a sense of humor, how to win a soap box derby, and so much more.
WL: What are you most proud of from your college years?
AH: I’m proud of a lot. I spent a lot of time in undergrad working on extra research projects, particularly the SENEA project through TURC, which was a project to develop sustainable energy technologies using local materials in north east Asia. I was TU’s entry into the ASME Old Guard Oral Presentation competition three times (and won nationally my senior year). I applied to several fellowships for graduate school, and with Nona Charleston’s help editing the essays, I was awarded an NSF graduate research fellowship, which funded my entire graduate program at SU. Because of that fellowship, I got to go to the grad school of my choice and work on the project of my choice. I also had funds to present at conferences in the U.S., Canada, Switzerland, and Denmark. Because of my graduate school work, I got a job in the aerospace industry and got to work on some really exciting, cutting edge technologies. Because of my success at that job, I was qualified for a job at Berd, which is located in my home state of Minnesota. And when there is a pandemic starting up and you have three kids under the age of 5, it’s really nice to be able to move closer to home. Each step has built on the previous step. All of it started because I chose to go to TU, and I’m really proud to have gone to TU.
WL: Could you share about your transition from undergrad to graduate school, including any realizations you had about TU after being away and experiencing life at a different university?
AH: I went from TU ME undergrad directly to Syracuse University to get a PhD in mechanical and aerospace engineering. At the time, SU had approximately six times as many students at TU. During my time in undergrad, TU always boasted the small-school atmosphere and personal attention from professors, but I never realized how different it was at larger schools. At SU, few of the students knew their professors, while at TU I felt like I knew all of my professors and could talk to any and all of them when needed. Freshman year, Dr. Henshaw popped down to the prototyping lab and suggested I use binder clips to hold some foam together while it cured, which worked. Sophomore year, Dr. Stratton helped me replace the clutch cylinder on TU’s Honda Insight after it went out while I was using it. Junior year, we gave Dr. Daily a pink tiara to wear for his birthday, and he wore it in class. Senior year, Dr. Mohan let me postpone a Controls test because the company I was interning for wanted to send me out on a project to Oman. I knew all the professors, and I wasn’t alone. That type of relationship is so rare, and it meant a lot to me as a developing engineer.