Heidi Baumgartner ’14 (Course 8, physics) has the ultimate high-voltage career. She and Course 6 student (electrical engineering and computer science) Bayley Wang run Medford, Massachusetts–based oneTesla, which manufactures spark-shooting DIY Tesla coils. “They do fun things like play music and shoot lightning,” she says. An online tutorial provides an in-depth explanation of how they work, and a gallery shows off kit users’ creations performing everything from Bach to the theme from Star Wars.
The company took root after going viral on Kickstarter. But in true MIT tradition, the original idea blossomed from simple tinkering and collaboration.
Just a couple years ago, Baumgartner was a mere hobbyist herself, experimenting at MIT’s MITERS (MIT Electronic Research Society) hacker space with friends who were already enthusiastic about building their own Tesla coils. This included Wang, who was designing a Tesla coil driver board to sell on eBay.
Baumgartner offered to make Wang a user-friendly website with a manual and photos. “I wanted to build something for hobbyists who might not have in-depth engineering knowledge,” she says.
“Basically, you turn it on, shoot lightning, and stand back. It doesn’t have a practical application, but it’s a fun weekend project that lets people show off their engineering skills.
I was doing it for fun and really expected nothing from it,” she says.
Nothing, that is, until a friend brought her to 15.S17 (Application of Advanced Entrepreneurial Techniques), and introduced her as running a “start-up” for Tesla coils. She was reluctant to dub her tinkering a start-up, but she enrolled in the class to keep her project on track anyway.
Good thing she did. “In the meantime, the website I put up started getting actual orders, even though the product wasn’t finished,” she says. She told those early customers to hold off until she and MITERS colleague Wang—with some early-stage collaboration from another Course 6 student, Daniel Kramnik—launched oneTesla on Kickstarter at the end of 2012, where they hoped to raise $20,000 and sell a modest 100 kits. Turns out, there’s a huge market for this kind of DIY fun: Within a week, they’d raised a whopping $100,000.
In fact, their invention was so popular that they shut down the campaign to focus on churning out enough products, first at MITERS and then at Artisan’s Asylum creative space in Somerville.
Juggling the side business with school wasn’t easy. “This was still a hobby. We were trying to manage the business and a full-time course load.
We learned a lot about the sheer scale of such a job and many difficulties of manufacturing,” Baumgartner says.
By her senior year, their original Kickstarter backlog was fulfilled. Now, Baumgartner and team work from a bigger Medford office with several employees. Part-timers work on packaging up to 100 parts, instructions, and circuit boards for mailing; an intern (first-year MIT undergrad Ryan Berg) works on mechanical engineering design; a full-time employee handles customer service; and Wang spearheads electronic design. “I do a lot of the other things that keep the business running,” Baumgartner laughs.
The original design is now out of stock. Shortly after Baumgartner graduated, they launched another Kickstarter campaign and raised even more money—about $336,000. To that end, the oneTesla team has designed a new and improved kit called oneTeslaTS ($399), scheduled for completion in March 2015, as well as a smaller kit called tinyTesla ($199). They’re currently at work on about 2,000 new orders for eager DIY engineers and garage hobbyists.
“They’re the ultimate home science project,” she says. “We see people who want to get their kids interested in electronics, high school students participating in science fairs, and some universities who use the coils for classroom demos.”
Baumgartner hopes to expand oneTesla’s audience to include online retailers and school science lab suppliers. “But we need to get the manufacturing down and ship the preorders before pursuing that,” she says. “After a lot of work last fall, our new Tesla coils will come in pretty nice packaging!”
Does she plan on a Tesla coil empire? Maybe, but another idea has—ahem—sparked her interest. Soon enough, the accidental entrepreneur hopes to attend graduate school for electrical engineering.