As a kid, Joseph Fjelstad would stand in his schoolyard and look up at the sky every day.
“I watched the X-15, which holds the record for the fastest plane, fly by,” Fjelstad recalls. “I was a pesky kid bugging my dad about how it worked. Engineering ran in the blood.”
His father, an aerospace engineer, would take him to Edwards Air Force Base, where he worked, to teach him a thing or two about everything from engineering to operations.
Fjelstad was a fast learner. So much so that to date, more than 180 of his inventions have been patented. His earliest patents got sold to Samsung.
“I’m not the world’s greatest businessman, but I’m an inventor,” says the member of Seattle’s WeWork South Lake Union. “I’m good at making money for other people, but for me, I want to make people’s lives better and happier.”
Fjelstad does this by eliminating lead, a highly toxic metal, from electronic circuit boards that he engineers. He attributes his experimental learning to the Vietnam War. After getting drafted in college and returning to school, he realized he could teach himself anything that he wanted to. So he started tinkering with electronic devices.
“The technologies I’ve been involved in developing are used in your smartphones today, and it’s fundamentally thousands of times more powerful than computers,” Fjelstad says.
Circuits and transistors fascinate the founder of Verdant Electronics. He’s given companies and consumers a simple solution to electronic devices we overcomplicate.
“We can continue to add things to devices that make it complex, but it’s about making a minimalist product that’s really elegant and beautiful,” Fjelstad says. “The phone is elegant in its own right, but there’s so much more stuff than people use, which adds costs.”
Fjelstad’s career doesn’t date back to college—he didn’t major in engineering. Instead, he started out working at a circuit board manufacturing company in Mountain View, California, helping interconnect electronic circuits through infrastructures like streets, tunnels, bridges, and subways.
Sometimes he felt like his ideas were way ahead of his time. When he’d work for companies and discuss innovative solutions, like eliminating solder from electronics, he said, “People thought that was crazy.” He knew he wasn’t because he’s read about it.
“I subscribe to 30 different journals,” he says. “I would flip through the pages and look at high-level concepts. Every now and then, things like eliminating solder would pop out.”
These days, he’s excited about a new project—one he’s calling the Occam Prize. The prize was conceived as a way to incentivize and reward designers around the globe for rethinking and reconsidering how they design and manufacture electronics in a more efficient manner. He has been pulling corporate sponsors from Japan, Eastern Europe, Russia, and the U.S. to support this concept.
“It’s about seeing a need for change and then making it happen,” Fjelstad says.
Photos: Ana Raab