As a serial entrepreneur, Kurt Heikkila knows that the path to innovation is often as challenging as it is rewarding. “Most of the things I do are messy, but you become comfortable with them being messy,” he says. “If it were that straightforward, our list of innovations would be a heck of a lot longer than it is today.”
Growing up near Lake Vermillion, Minn., Heikkila’s interests in business and inventing were nurtured by both of his parents. At age 14, Heikkila and his father ran a business making and selling Christmas ornaments, but when he went off to college, his mother insisted that he get a well-rounded education. “My parents were very wise people; they had a plan,” he says. “If you become too mono-focused, you step past a lot of richness in life.”
In-between earning a B.A. in physics and chemistry from Concordia College and an M.S. in chemistry from the University of Minnesota–Duluth, Heikkila went to work for a venture capital firm in Manhattan, where he was mentored by a former DuPont research director. After graduate school and a stint at DuPont, he started Aspen Research, where he developed a composite material called Fibrex, which was sold to Andersen Windows and remains an essential part of their Renewal by Andersen line.
“My interest is and always will be making composite materials for new applications,” says Heikkila, who has amassed more than 80 patents in his career, mostly tied to advanced polymers and composites; he created materials that led to the microwave popcorn bag and a non-lead automotive wheel weight used by General Motors.
That drive to find real-world uses for his inventions led him to founding Tundra Cos. in 2004. The White Bear Lake-based company uses innovative technologies to help clients like 3M make their products safer, stronger and more durable. “We have a baseline of technologies, and our job is to go out in the world and see where they fit in, where they apply,” says Heikkila. “We don’t make products; we make products better.”
The 85-employee organization includes both manufacturing and research and development, allowing its chemists and engineers to develop and test their ideas in-house. Though Heikkila has tried retiring a couple of times, his passion for serving customers and a desire to mentor new tech talent keep him busy.
“The people in this city have been very good to me, and we’re fortunate to have access to world-class engineers,” says Heikkila, who has taught classes on innovation that emphasize the importance of flexibility and real-world relevance in inventing new products.
“I teach people that it’s a messy process and fun, and that it’s the morphing of innovation that creates products that truly meet the test of time,” he says, noting that serial entrepreneurs must constantly refocus their efforts and incorporate customer feedback in order to remain relevant.
While working on the cutting edge of a rapidly changing field like technology is exciting, Heikkila knows that perseverance and prioritizing in the face of obstacles and unknowns are just as important to success as technical know-how.
“I’m a big believer that if you don’t let someone fail, they won’t learn,” he says. “Innovation is not a straight line. General Electric didn’t start out with the light bulb; lots of innovation had to be done first, and it’s a choice to go through that process.”