Penn College education powers electronics entrepreneur
The 2001 graduate is a self-described “full-stack problem-solver” with several electronics-rooted patents to his name. A longtime engineering consultant for companies with global reach, Hughes is the co-founder of State College-based TZero, a sensor technology and software firm that is making its mark in the food and beverage industry.
“Am I a millionaire driving a Tesla? No. Has it gone well so far? Yes,” he said with a chuckle.
Hughes, from rural McKean County, traded a secure career as a research engineer at Penn State’s Applied Research Laboratory for the chance to create TZero with two industry friends. He went from a high-tech lab dedicated to systems engineering research for the U.S. Navy to working out of a garage for a nebulous customer base.
“I liked who I worked with and what I did at ARL. Probably everyone thought I was crazy to leave because I could have worked there until retirement,” he said. “But let’s say I’m 65 or 70 and sitting around the campfire joking with my buddies. Do I want to be like, ‘Remember that company we started that failed? Wasn’t that a good time?’ Or ‘I wish we would have tried because we had the opportunity.’ I’ve run into enough people who sought safety and regretted not taking opportunities. What’s the worst that could happen? The business blows up, and I’ll have to go look for a job again? I’ll find a job.”
TZero develops acoustic sensors and cloud-based software for real-time, remote monitoring of industrial processes. The initial client base consisted of craft breweries. The pandemic dried up that market, leading the company to target large-scale food producers reliant on pasteurization.
Operating as a subsidiary of The NPC Companies, TZero supplies the hardware, data collection technology and analysis to alert companies to maintenance or quality-control issues within their pasteurization systems. New clients include a corporation with worldwide brand recognition.
“Where you start with expectations is not where you end up,” Hughes said regarding TZero’s evolution. The statement also serves as an apt description for his education that includes a Penn College bachelor’s degree in electronics engineering technology (known today as electronics & computer engineering technology) and a master’s in acoustics from Penn State.
School was an afterthought for Hughes while growing up in Ludlow, a village of about 300 residents near Kane. Music – playing guitar and keyboards – stirred his soul, just like his father, James, a noted drummer and renowned music technician. During Hughes’ junior year in high school, James, who studied electronics at Penn College’s predecessor Williamsport Area Community College, dragged him on a campus tour to inspire career direction.
The plan worked. One look in the electronics lab transformed Hughes from reluctant visitor to passionate student.
“There was a computer with wires connected to a breadboard that had some things that looked like they were from a mad science laboratory hooked up to a giant robotic arm. The arm was moving around. Students were writing code that was controlling the robot,” he recalled. “I was like, ‘This is it! This is exactly what I want to do!’ I was hooked and became uber-focused on success at that point.”
The moment rekindled an interest Hughes discovered in seventh grade while taking a computer literacy class. A Nintendo fanatic at the time, he realized the chip inside the school’s Apple IIe machine was comparable to the one operating his game console at home. “Once I made that connection, I got into programming,” he said. “It was like, ‘I can make that chip do anything.’”
Over time, the absence of a home computer and the lure of music dampened his enthusiasm for academic pursuits – until the fateful Penn College visit. Hughes left campus determined to raise his grades before graduating from high school and enrolling in the college’s electronics program.
“Going to Penn College was the best decision I ever made,” Hughes said. “I loved the hands-on work, and all the instructors took time outside of their normal schedules to engage with me on my personal interests. I was constantly thinking about new circuits, software and projects. I think I was in pretty much everyone’s office trying to get their perspective.”
Jeffrey L. Rankinen, associate professor of electronics & computer engineering technology, remembers Hughes as a constant presence in the electronics labs. “Eli had an optimistic outlook and genuine interest in electronics. He was continually engaged in conversation about electronics with students and faculty,” Rankinen said. “Eli had an intense desire for knowledge.”
He became a mainstay on the Dean’s List and even taught a few freshman-level electronics labs during his senior year. By then, Hughes had experienced a startup for the first time, working as a research engineer for QorTek Inc. Based in Linden, QorTek has grown from its garage origin to become a world leader in smart material devices and high-density power electronics.
“I was able to see how to start a new business,” Hughes said. “Things like fancy buildings and labs do not equate to success. It’s more about the team, vision and grit.”
Hughes consulted for QorTek – and other companies – long after graduating from Penn College, earning his master’s and establishing himself at the Applied Research Lab. He also added part-time electronics teacher at Penn State to his resume before embracing his entrepreneurial spirit.
“I think it was mostly related to wanting to work on new things,” he said about swapping job security for the TZero adventure. “For me, not knowing the outcome makes it exciting. Once you learn that failure isn’t a bad thing and instead can be a very useful tool, your mind is free to think about possibilities. Translating ideas to reality is where the magic is. That is the part I find so captivating.”
Despite the demands of TZero and his consulting work, the married father of two donates his time and expertise as a member of the industry advisory committee for Penn College’s electronics program. His alma mater honored him in 2010 with the Alumni Achievement Award.
“It is vital for our fast-changing electronics technology programs to obtain bleeding-edge input from experts like Eli,” Rankinen said. “We depend on input from Eli and others in the field to keep our curriculum relevant to employers.”
Hughes remains impressed with the college’s hands-on programs and envisions using today’s electronics students as tomorrow’s talent base for TZero and other endeavors on the horizon.
Speaking of which … “I actually have a new business idea related to audio and guitars that I’m exploring with a partner in Jakarta, Indonesia,” Hughes shared. “But that will be a story for a later day!”
For information on Penn College’s degrees related to electronics and other majors offered by the School of Engineering Technologies, call 570-327-4520.
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