Ex-Michelin researcher Ralph Hulseman starts his own firm, Hoowaki

Originally published in the Greenville News

By Rudolph Bell

A top researcher for Michelin North America Inc. has left the tire maker after 25 years to launch his own high-tech startup company in Greenville.

As director of external research for the Greenville-based tire maker, Ralph Hulseman managed its research relationships with universities, national laboratories and other companies. He was always on the lookout for innovations to improve tire making.

Now he hopes to build a new company around a technology he found while prospecting for Michelin. It’s a manufacturing process developed by William P. King, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Illinois.

The process allows the molding of microstructures and nanostructures on curved surfaces. Hulseman said it has the potential to change the look, feel and performance of a wide variety of everyday products. For example, he said, vinyl flooring could be made to feel like carpet.

"It can be applied to anything that’s made in molds," he said.

Hulseman’s partners in the startup, called Hoowaki LLC, are King and Greenville businessman John Warner, founder of the annual InnoVenture venture capital conference, where Hulseman represented Michelin for several years.

Warner said he sees a lot of opportunity in the technology "and quite frankly I have a lot of confidence in Ralph."

Hulseman, who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said Michelin supports his foray into entrepreneurship after a quarter century of corporate life.

"Michelin realized that one way to develop the technology was to have a third party commercialize it, and so eventually I asked if I could leave the company and try to do that," Hulseman said. "Everyone hopes that Michelin may be a customer some day, as well as a lot of other companies."

Hulseman said he envisions Hoowaki in five years collecting several million dollars in annual revenue from an international customer base. But right now, the startup doesn’t have any revenue, or even an office. It was officially incorporated less than a month ago.

"We’re a very early-stage company," Hulseman said.

Tom Kurfess, director of automotive engineering at Clemson University, said he was part of a team that hired King as a professor at Georgia Tech. "The guy is fantastic," Kurfess said.

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