ecoPRT: Grad Alum’s Vision for Moving People

Graduate School alumnus Marshall Brain says he took away three things from his computer science graduate education at NC State: his love for teaching, his ability to write books (he’s written more than two dozen) and his gift for becoming an “accidental entrepreneur.”

The skills and experiences that he learned as a graduate student have guided him as director of NC State’s Engineering Entrepreneurship Program. And that same entrepreneurial spirit has led him to seek a creative solution for moving students, faculty and staff around NC State’s campus. The ecoPRT system will one day move students between the university’s major libraries – DH Hill on main campus and James B. Hunt on Centennial Campus – in roughly five minutes. The journey can take up to 30 minutes by campus bus now.

Though he may be best known as founder of the website, “How Stuff Works,” it is by no means Marshall Brain’s only business venture. And each business opportunity he “fell into” came at a time when he was seeking an answer to a problem, like how to find work in a bad economy.

The accidental nature of Brain’s entrepreneurial success is something that he brings to his role as director of the Engineering Entrepreneurship program. In each of his business ventures, “I had no formal training – I had to figure everything out,” he said, from hiring employees to acquiring venture capital and more.

The ecoPRT – economical personal rapid transit – is also an entrepreneurial idea for moving people across NC State’s vast campus, and even beyond. For Brain, it’s not a question of “if,” but “when” it will be implemented at NC State.

Brain says there is a campus corridor earmarked for moving people between the university’s two major libraries – Hunt Library on Centennial Campus to the D.H. Hill Library on Hillsborough Street. The two-person cars that Brain proposes would transport passengers to their destination on a track, stopping only where their drivers want to stop, unlike buses that follow a prescribed route, picking up and dropping off passengers along the way. And Brain says the ecoPRT is far more affordable than any transit idea on the drawing board today.

In the future, the 1.8-mile trek between NC State’s two libraries will go something like this: You’ll walk up to an area where the two-person automated cars are waiting. You get in and your “car” will guide you along a track that avoids traffic lights and major intersections, while offering stops at campus sites like the Talley Student Union, Carmichael Gym, School of Design and the Brickyard. In roughly five minutes, you could make the trip from the Hunt Library to D.H. Hill Library.

With only a little funding, the ecoPRT program has made great strides, with support from Dr. Seth Hollar, teaching assistant professor, and Brain. “Seth is a genius of shoestring budgeting,” Brain says. Students developed a prototype car and built a demonstration track behind Engineering Building 3. The second and more refined prototype of the ecoPRT is now in the works.

“Students are actually doing the work by the dozens, and there are not that many opportunities like that in the world,” Brain said. “So it’s fantastic from an educational standpoint.”

A similar transportation system was developed 40 years ago at West Virginia University in Morgantown, W.Va. The cars were larger, holding roughly 20 people, and the entire system was elevated, making it much more expensive than the system that Brain envisions. Yet that system is still in use and has recently been refurbished.

ecoPRT
Dr. Seth Hollar, seated right, takes the first ecoPRT demo unit on a spin around the Oval during Entrepalooza. (Natalie Hampton photo)

Brain’s ecoPRT would be built with off-the-shelf parts, and stations developed in parking decks. The system would be a 10th the cost of light rail, he says. And he’s even thinking beyond NC State’s campus – nearby venues like Cameron Village or Glenwood South could build a station to bring in thousands of university students who wouldn’t require a parking space.

Brain sees potential for using the ecoPRT to transport folks around different types of campuses – airports, industries and universities – much more efficiently than other types of transit. Once it launches, the ecoPRT could become another entrepreneur’s dream come true.

Marshall Brain’s journey from business owner, “How Stuff Works” developer, author to entrepreneurship program director, was a circuitous one, with challenges, learning opportunities and at least a bit of luck. And his story demonstrates that graduate school success doesn’t look the same for everyone.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Brain headed south to fulfill his plan of becoming chip designer for Intel. But the economy was bad in the mid-1980s, and after wrapping up a contract job, Brain began his master’s degree program in computer science at NC State.

At the same time, he landed a job teaching computer science courses at Wake Technical Community College, where at age 23, he was younger than most of his students who were seeking new skills to get them through the down economy. And his class loved him – the students gave him a set of bookends that he still owns.

The Wake Tech job led him to a teaching assistant’s position at NC State, where he taught 100-, 200- and 300-level computer science classes from 1987 to 1990. During this time, NC State developed a new computer system called Eos, “a very forward-thinking system for the time. It was a network system of Unix workstations that students could access freely,” Brain said.

The Eos system was based on Motif programming , and Brain kept meticulous notes on Motif to use in his teaching. After he posted his Motif notes on an FTP server, the notes became popular and then caught the attention of a publisher. “That became my first book – I wrote it as a graduate student,” Brain said.

A few years later, in yet another down economy, Brain was asked to leave his Ph.D. program for not making progress on his dissertation. “I remember at the time thinking, ‘my life is over – I love teaching, and they kicked me out!’” he said.

So Brain and an undergraduate student decided to start a small software consulting company, just for the summer.

“So that summer, in one of the most amazing coincidences in history, all of Wall Street converted over to the same kind of system NC State had installed, and they all decided to use Motif programming. Wall Street has thousands and thousands of programmers to write all the programs that traders use. And they needed training on how to do Motif programming,” Brain said.

“We started with $400 in my friend’s apartment. We were just a couple of guys who were out there looking for work, and it just so happened that, at that exact moment in history, I had a book — that was a really good book – on Motif programming, and we were a consulting company that would do anything for a buck. And in three years, we were a $3 million a year company, with 20 employees. And that company still exists today,” he said.

Brain and his wife also started a small publishing company at a time when he wanted to self-publish a book. And while he was running his software company, he started writing short articles at home in the evening — just for fun — about how stuff works. “When you think about it, ‘How Stuff Works’ is essentially a teaching platform,” he said.

The “How Stuff Works” website won a major internet award, attracted venture capital, and eventually went from being the site that Brain worked on in his spare time to his primary business, growing and shrinking until it was eventually bought by Discovery Channel.

The ecoPRT, and all its possibilities, could be Marshall Brain’s next entrepreneurial adventure. Who knows where it will go from here?

Note: Marshall Brain has been featured recently by several news organizations.

July 20, 2015: WUNC’s State of Things, Marshall Brain Explains ‘How Stuff Works’

Dec. 27, 2015: The News & Observer, Do robots own your future?

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