Each week, staff writer Paul Wood talks with a high-tech difference-maker. This week, meet University of Illinois graduate DANNY GARDNER, 23, the CEO of Mesh++, a Champaign startup that aims to expand Wi-Fi connectivity using solar power. His company won several awards at the University of Illinois and is exploding worldwide. It has operated out of Shenzhen, China, at the HAX Accelerator, the world's first and largest hardware startup accelerator.
What is your university experience?
I am 23. I completed my bachelor's in electrical engineering from the UI in 2017, minoring in physics and was part of the Hoeft Technology and Management project.
Tell us about how Mesh++ got started.
Mesh++ started as my electrical and computer engineering Senior Design project, aimed to bring internet access to remote areas by eliminating the infrastructure requirements. We were able to build a solar-powered mesh network around the engineering quad that hosted a distributed copy of Wikipedia. Unfortunately it was very slow and had poor mesh networking performance, so following that semester we explored how to solve the problem of connectivity in more advanced ways. Our more recent tech solves the same problem in a more commercially viable (scalable and high-throughput) way.
Who else is on your team?
Our team has grown to seven in the past few months. In Chicago, Oluseun Arowolaju, also from the Ul, manages sales and HR. Sharan Huggi writes our key firmware. Xi Chen handles front-end radio drivers. Venkat Chimata implements development builds. In Shenzhen, China, Daniel Qin supervises manufacturing and Edward Cheung designs cloud management software.
How do you manage Wi-Fi, even in public parks?
We install lightweight solar-powered access points on top of lamp posts or other structures, to minimize the cost of installation (and any interaction with electrical work, cable trenching, etc.).
Sounds like you'd be putting ethernet and other technologies out of business.
Ethernet is still king in most places, although fiber and Wi-Fi are closing in from the top and bottom, respectively. Our solution is best with even coverage in a large outdoor space, where trenching cable is very expensive; or a temporary event where laying cable is labor intensive. Our tech is pretty great but not a panacea! Even within mesh networks, there are many different protocols and trying to meet the demands of all use-cases doesn't end well.
What do you do when you're not at Mesh++?
I hang out with my best pal, Hershey the dog. He's the brains behind Mesh++.
What's your best advice for someone who's starting up?
Take risks. Try everything. You'll fail 99.9 percent of the time and that's fine, everyone does. It's the 0.1 percent of marginal success that you'll slap on your LinkedIn profile and brag about to everyone with ears. Mistakes will get replaced with new, more spectacular blunders. Don't let them keep you from trying.
Did you ever make any mistakes that you learned from in your early years?
Heck yes. So many mistakes. Every mistake. If this is directed at me personally, I had a few experiments that went wrong and caused property damage, so I stick to safer electronics now. Within the company: we started with the intent of helping people, and profit came second. We were too idealistic.
TECH TIDBITS ... from DANNY GARDNER
Favorite app: WeChat
On Facebook I follow ... Exclusively bands from my post-hardcore phase in middle school. And maybe high school.
Book or Kindle? What are you reading right now? Online PDFs. Datasheets.
Do you have any wearable electronics? No, despite working on the Flex 2 and Ionic at Fitbit.
Do you have an entrepreneur hero? No, I have no idea what I'm doing.