William Tolli's Tale: From Bench to Bike, or How I Came to Love Custom Choppers
When you think of custom Harley Davidson motorcycles, chances are you would not think of WPI electrical and computer engineering student William D. Tolli '06. You might think instead of big, bad, burly Paul Sr. and his not-so-bright son, Mikey, of cable TV's "American Chopper" fame. Yet custom bike shops such as Connecticut's Nutmeg Choppers embrace lanky, techy William as one of their own because of his wiring wizardry. Custom bike builders weren't the only ones impressed by William's electrical circuitry prowess. In 2005, a panel of distinguished judges awarded William the $1500 first prize in WPI's First Annual Strage Innovation Awards - which he promptly spent on an oscilloscope to help in his product design.
The Strage Innovation Awards were established by the university's Collaborative for Entrepreneurship & Innovation (CEI) and sponsored by Henry M. Strage '54 and his wife, Alberta, as a way to encourage students to turn creative concepts and innovative ideas into tangible, meaningful contributions to society and the economy. Prizes are awarded based on the entries' creativity and originality; technical merit, viability, and commercialization strategy; clarity of idea and quality of presentation; feasibility of implementation; and supporting evidence and market demand. What garnered Tolli a first place win was his innovative redesign of a motorcycle electrical wiring system, using a single wire running the length of the frame to replace the conventional, complicated, electromechanical system requiring as many as 32 wires that have to be routed throughout the bike.
An unlikely source of inspiration
Tolli might not have ever developed his clever wiring concept if it weren't for his ancient, wheezing Chevy Corsica and a profound lack of funds. "I got this old Corsica when I was in high school and I learned the mechanics of it out of necessity," commented Tolli. "I couldn't afford to have my car worked on, so I went to my high school shop and asked if I could change the oil. The shop teacher said 'sure, throw it up on a lift', so I started looking at things underneath the car and figuring them out."
It was that innate intellectual curiosity that set Tolli on his path to innovation. "When I learn something new and cool, I do stuff like this," Tolli said, referring to his fooling around with circuits on a breadboard - a tangle of wiring and components on a stock electrical board that enables engineers to test circuits and theories. As Tolli started developing ideas about automotive electrical systems and wiring, he tried them out first on his old Corsica - one of his first WPI class projects was making a tachometer for the cranky sedan. As a result of his car-repair self-schooling, Tolli had grown to like things automotive and tried to get a job last summer working on custom cars in hot rod shops near his hometown of Bristol, Connecticut. When that didn't pan out, he helped a friend rewire his bike and discovered he had a knack for it. With encouragement from his friend, Tolli began circulating a mini-resume to area bike shops and Nutmeg Choppers soon bit with a two-to-three day wiring project that, to their amazement, he completed in six hours. He was off and running. Instead of wiring hot rods, it would be custom motorcycles.
An elegant solution
Once Tolli started looking closer at motorcycle electrical systems, he realized there had to be a better way to wire a bike. So in the fall of 2004, while at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland working full time for his senior electrical computer engineering project, Tolli spent his evenings tinkering with wiring and transistors, perfecting his single-wire concept for motorcycles. By going to a digitally-controlled system, he found he could eliminate all the bulky electromechanical components. No more fuses and relays - he envisioned a single wire that would enable the digital control of all electrical circuits, including tail lights, turn signals, brake lights, ignition controls, and headlights. The entire system would consist of a tiny, one-inch-square processor unit in the front of the bike, connected by a single wire running the length of the bike to another small box in the back. Custom bike builders - always concerned about space and the frequent need to sacrifice form for function - could now have the freedom to design elegant, creative frames that would have to house only one wire instead of a bulky harness with over a dozen wires.
But for Tolli, his new harness is more about safety than beauty. Ironically, he does not ride motorcycles. "Bikes are big, heavy, and basically unsafe," Tolli points out. "Most riders use their front brakes more often than the rear ones, and with two separate brake systems, custom bike designers will often eliminate the front brake light switch and turn signals to save wiring space. So if a rider uses just his front brake or makes a turn without using a hand signal, a driver behind him will not be aware he is slowing down or changing direction." Using his single wire harness, bike builders can now incorporate all the electrical functions they need without concern for wiring space.
The award that almost wasn't
Surprisingly, Tolli almost missed his opportunity to submit an application for the Strage Innovation Awards. Fortunately for him his friend, Alexandra Levshin '05, also an engineering major, happened to be entering and mentioned the competition to Tolli. He decided to apply almost on a whim and hurriedly filed the paperwork at the last minute. To his surprise, he not only qualified for the final round, but ended up in first place. Levshin and her project partner finished third, Tolli points out sheepishly. "If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't have even entered," he chuckles.
Despite these impressive wins, neither Tolli nor Levshin were ready to rest on their laurels. Instead, they pooled their resources in the summer of '05 and decided to start a company, Dockum Engineering (borrowing a Tolli family name), with the idea of commercializing Tolli's invention.
Working frantically through the summer, Tolli and Levshin filed for a provisional patent that would temporarily secure the rights to the innovative harness Tolli was still developing, hoping to be able to show it at the big Atlantic City Chopper Fest trade show in October. With just days to spare, they finished the working prototype and the patent paperwork, packed up their car, and headed to New Jersey.
Prepared to hear the worst about their invention from a crowd not known for its politeness, Toli and Levshin were stunned to hear not a single negative word. "It was incredible," said Levshin, now business manager for the fledgling company. "Everyone was really interested in what we had to show. We didn't hear one bad thing." Not knowing what to expect, Tolli and Levshin had brought 200 business cards and flyers with them, fully expecting that would be plenty for the three day show. Within hours, they were hunting for paper and printing more right in the booth to meet the demand.
Elated by the overwhelmingly positive reception of their technology, Tolli and Levshin doubled their efforts over the fall and winter. 'We were having dinner with my parents over Christmas break and working on the circuitry," laughed Levshin. "I remember seeing the ball drop (on New Year's Eve) and then going back to the table to work, "recalled Tolli.
The first order of business was to make the leap from a large demonstration prototype to a miniaturized, working harness that could be installed on an actual motorcycle. Securing parts to make the miniature circuitry proved to be another major challenge - Tolli spent countless hours driving between their home in Worcester to a parts supplier in western Massachusetts then to their first volunteer cycle installation job in northern Worcester County. "I must have put over 20,000 miles on my car in the last six months," sighed Tolli.
Like many entrepreneurs, Tolli and Levshin turned to the Internet for resources. Using two major custom cycle websites, ChopperWeb.net and ClubChopper.com, they eventually found a willing participant who would let them use his bike as a two-wheeled guinea pig. This spring, networking with contacts made through WPI's Department of Management and the CEI, they also found a benefactor in Manchester Harley-Davidson, a dealer just over the border in New Hampshire who was willing to loan them a shop bay and tools to perfect their electrical harnesses and work on their first two motorcycle installations.
Getting down to business
Like most entrepreneurs, Tolli and Levshin suffer from a chronic shortness of cash. Fortunately, sympathetic family members, personal savings, and day jobs have helped. Tolli has what he describes as the "ultimate dream job", helping design ultra-sophisticated super computers at a company in Chelmsford, Mass., and Levshin received a government-sponsored grant for mechanical engineering studies at WPI, paying her to conduct research while she studies for her PhD. As Dockum Engineering, Tolli and Levshin are now looking for investors and the money to get them to the next level of development and production.
The first step they took was to begin creating a business plan and for help they tapped WPI's Jerome Schaufeld, Visiting Professor of Entrepreneurship and experienced entrepreneur and advisor to entrepreneurial firms. 'He not only helped me structure the business plan, he explained why certain words and phrases should be used, "said Levshin, who graduated with a BS in Mechanical Engineering. "Professor Schaufeld would go over our business plan sentence by sentence - it would come back covered in red ink. I learned so much from him."
Levshin and Tolli also credit WPI's CEI with helping fledgling Dockum Engineering in a number of ways. "We went to several WPI Venture Forum meetings where we met the attorney who is helping us with our patent application," commented Tolli. "The CEI is even helping us understand how to defray some of the patent application fees," added Levshin.
There are, of course, more obstacles to overcome - working with Schaufeld and the CEI, Tolli and Levshin are investigating angel investors for seed money to finish product development, and looking for partnerships to provide manufacturing, sales, and distribution. They've already begun working with printed circuit board manufacturer Cirtronics to begin designing and building the first commercial-level system for eventual full-scale production. Both Tolli and Levshin are confident that it will all come with time. Tolli's already done some preliminary market research and discovered that the demand for their product is there. By his calculations the reduction in the size and number of components needed for his digital wiring system will enable him to sell it for close to the same price as the current electromechanical system. And his digital system will provide enhanced functionality, programmability, and flexibility. While Tolli credits his natural ability to visualize and understand circuitry for making his invention possible, he and Levshin will now need to tap other resources as Dockum Engineering gets ready to turn his concept into reality.