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How to disobey your mother, and still make her proud

"My mom kept telling me, you've got to make sure you get a secure job. You’ve got to have that corporate job," recalls Nick Turnbull BSE ME '13. That was back when Nick was an undergrad studying mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan.| Medium Read
EnlargeMan demonstrates device
IMAGE:  Christian Groesbeck demonstrates the latest TurtleCell product. Photo: Ben Logan

“My mom kept telling me, you’ve got to make sure you get a secure job. You’ve got to have that corporate job,” recalls Nick Turnbull BSE ME ’13. That was back when Nick was an undergrad studying mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan.

He never did take his mother’s advice. Instead, he dove headfirst into the unpredictable waters of entrepreneurship. It’s paying off. This year, his team and company, TurtleCell, are planning to produce half a million units of their product.

EnlargePrototype
IMAGE:  Early Turtle Cell Prototypes. Photo: Turtle Cell

Turnbull and his classmate Paul Schrems envisioned a slim iPhone case that included retractable headphones—a cure for the tangled earbud blues. “To be perfectly honest, me Paul and I were like this is a great idea, but what the heck do we do? We had no idea,” says Turnbull.” That was in 2011. They started by making the Duderstadt Library their unofficial headquarters—using the nearby U-M 3D lab to model and print some of their initial prototypes.

They then took their idea to the Center For Entrepreneurship (CFE) where they learned about a handful of U-M resources that might help them get their idea off the ground: a Jump Start Grant, 1000 Pitches competition, the Tech Arb were all opportunities that they jumped on. “We literally just applied for everything—we just did it all,” says Turnbull. They won 1000 Pitches, got the grant and got into Tech Arb. “This gave us a good excuse to spend a little money and see what we could do.”

They struggled to build a promising prototype, and early on were very close to calling it quits. But networking through Tech Arb and Ann Arbor SPARK introduced them to an important mentor. “The nice thing about southeast Michigan and U-M is there is a lot of manufacturing knowledge around here for hardware design,” says Turnbull. “They helped us rethink some internal components and we got a good working prototype. Then it was like, we might actually have something—we can actually make it happen.”

Things began falling into place. They won another $10,000 grant and had a small inventory of working prototypes. They unveiled a KickStarter campaign with high hopes. “We thought we had it—we were golden. We were really high on the roller coaster,” says Turnbull. “Then the campaign barely reached half. Paul and I were really in the dumps.”

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IMAGE:  Left to right: Jeremy Lindlbauer, Paul Schrems, and Nick Turnbull hold a large check for $10,000 from the Accelerate Michigan entrepreneur competition.

TurtleCell was on the brink, but they forged ahead. They were soon pitching again, this time at Accelerate Michigan—a statewide business pitch competition. After making it to finals, they won the people’s choice award and landed on the front page of the Detroit Free Press.

“That connected us to our licensing and distribution partner,” says Turnbull. “They took us to the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas and showed us off to all the big guys: AT&T, Verizon. They loved it.”

Today TurtleCell works out of their Kerrytown office in Ann Arbor. They are an army of five, including an additional U-M engineer and a U-M architecture grad. They plan on remaining in town for the time being. “There’s a great entrepreneurial community in Ann Arbor—a lot of support,” says Christian Groesbeck BSE ME ‘13, Lead Product Engineer. “Everyone is very involved and work off of each other and play off each other—which helps the community grow organically.”

TurtleCell recently announced that its product is available in select southeast Michigan Verizon stores. They are excited about their momentum and are looking forward to what’s next. “We’re not quite there, but we can smell it,” says Turnbull. “When I can go to a Verizon store in Florida, and see my product on the shelf, or pass a stranger on the street who is listening on a TurtleCell—that’s when I’ll feel like we’re there.”

Man demonstrates device
Prototype
Team poses with check
Portrait of Ben Logan

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Metal rods that are part of the molecular epitaxy beam apparatus at Michigan Engineering. Photo by Joseph Xu, Michigan Engineering Communications & Marketing

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