Paragon Robotics president Julian Lamb finished college, went pro, and it still wasn’t enough. An automotive engineer who worked on race cars in college, he didn’t want to be a star on somebody else’s team. He wanted to steer a team of his own.
That was a decade ago, when Lamb had drive, if not direction.
“I knew I wanted to design a revolutionary product,” says Lamb.
After years of development and research, he may have a product that matches his ambition.
This fall, Lamb’s Hiram-based startup is scheduled to launch a line of next-generation climate-control systems. The Paragon team is testing more than a dozen cost-saving sensors, relays and software programs that he estimates can shave a facility’s energy bill by up to 40 percent.
Paragon’s hardware line comprises thermostats, controllers and light switches, all joined together via a wireless system with exceptional range. The company’s most distinct strength is its software, powered by sophisticated algorithms that understand a building’s complete environment. Lamb’s Halo/S platform tracks weather forecasts, current occupancy, sunlight levels, humidity and more.
“What makes somebody comfortable? Traditionally, temperature has been the only factor that’s been taken into account,” says Lamb.
“You can understand the way a building responds to [weather], the fundamental physics of what’s going on,” he says. “Now some [energy] companies raise electricity costs during peak hours. So you can intelligently pre-cool the building before the peak hours come into effect, and coast through them.”
Lamb, 35, moved to Hiram in 2009 to formally launch Paragon after a long development process. Climate-control systems are so far away from where the engineer and entrepreneur started, it took a fleet of racing vehicles to get him to Ohio.
“Engineering is my true love,” says Lamb. He grew up in North Carolina and spent his youth apprenticed to his father, a chief researcher at a company that developed products that used artificial intelligence. As a kid, Lamb helped his dad program audio recognition software and design a bicycle simulator (imagine a spinning cycle with a fan attached to simulate wind).
After high school, Lamb was ready for a formal education in the field. He majored in mechanical engineering at North Carolina State University, deep in NASCAR country.
When Lamb wasn’t in class or studying, he spent every free moment designing suspensions and chassis for the NC State auto racing team, Wolfpack Motorsports. Like a college team for engineers, the student racing club was a feeder system for companies such as Volvo, John Deere and Penske Motorsports.
In 2000, after a year of graduate school, Lamb was called up to the big show: Honda Research and Development in Marysville, Ohio. At Honda, Lamb became an MVP and team captain. He designed and manufactured suspensions for SUVs and trucks and was promoted through the ranks quickly.
But as he learned what it took to program automated machines to fabricate parts and weld them together, he decided that advancing technology was not making the field better. Getting different machines to work together was extremely difficult because the systems controlling them were very complicated and different from one another.
“There’s no great way of communicating between these cells,” he says. “There’s a tremendous limitation. And I saw it was an unsustainable direction. I thought, There has to be a better way.” He worked late nights at Honda and burned the midnight oil at home, looking for that better way.
Lamb loved working with an industry-leading team, but he began feeling a growing need to start his own company. He lived accordingly. As a single young man, he was single-minded, working constantly and living simply. He rented a small apartment, drove a used car and saved his money for a day when he could spend it on his own
By 2006, Lamb was a senior engineer and team leader for suspension design, in charge of a half-dozen engineers and two drafters. He could see a whole career at the company unfolding in front of him, but he thought he could do even better on his own.
“I felt I had a unique set of talents,” says Lamb. “I worked well with people. I had vision. I knew the technical side.
“I thought the perfect place to apply it was with my own product, to show my dedication, pursue a goal, develop a team, build my business up, and be able to one day look back, say ‘I built this’ and feel proud about it.”
With money in the bank, Lamb quit Honda and moved back to Raleigh in 2006. In North Carolina, he bought a house and established Paragon Robotics. He set up a machine shop in his garage, filling it with lathes, welders and electrical test equipment. His original plan was to build new automation systems for manufacturers. He entered the next phase of his life with characteristic confidence: It was a risk, but one he had prepared for.
Lamb had left the auto industry at the right time. With the economic downturn, output levels dropped, inventory levels rose and oil and electricity prices skyrocketed. The government began giving grants to energy programs. Lamb massaged his Halo/S software platform to work with new applications.
“I thought this platform would be perfect for energy automation,” Lamb says. “We’d have a niche and do something our competitors can’t do. And our high-level algorithms gave us a capability that could really make us a player in the market.”
He began using his platform, built to run manufacturing systems, to regulate heating and air conditioning systems.
As his products and business developed, he met his future wife, Erin, a doctoral student in English. She graduated in 2009, and a job offer at Ohio’s Hiram College followed. For Lamb, Ohio seemed like a good arena for a technology startup.
“With JumpStart and all these incubators around, Northeast Ohio has done a tremendous job getting a great support system in place,” says Lamb. The area’s manufacturing base was another plus. “The skilled manpower is here to allow us to do anything we want.”
But Lamb still hadn’t identified the right opportunity. In 2011, he applied to Lorain County Community College’s Innovation Fund but was rejected.
The Fund did help Lamb by explaining why he’d been turned down. They believed in his technology and its applications for climate control, but thought he was focused on the wrong market. The fund encouraged Lamb to shift his target market from household use to commercial and industrial applications, where buyers had fewer options and could save more money.
Lamb dutifully took notes. This spring, the Fund awarded a $25,000 grant to Paragon.
“The entrepreneur is as important as the technology,” says Dennis Cocco, co-director of Great Lakes Innovation & Development Enterprise, which administers LCCC’s Innovation Fund. “He’s extremely coachable, and he’s a brilliant person.”
The $25,000 award will help Paragon apply for patents, research software algorithms and fund prototypes at local businesses. “It’s a great start, a big help for us,” says Lamb.
Paragon aims to launch its product line in late 2012. From circuit boards to casings, it will be produced locally by companies such as Euclid’s Proforma Manufacturing.
The company has three full-time employees: Lamb, an electric engineer and a computer engineer. A part-time researcher is helping to further develop Paragon’s algorithms and computer models, which can sense not only how warm a room is at the moment, but how full it is, how bright it is and how much its occupants are moving around.
Lamb says that flexible thinking has helped him develop the company. From markets to software, he hasn’t hesitated to change his game plan when it’s not working.
“I’m humble, and you don’t find that a lot in engineers,” says Lamb. “I don’t choose a side and stick with it. I’m not afraid to adjust. I do that with products, and I do that in day-to-day operations.”