Max Mankin is the founder of Modern Electron, a startup that seeks to overturn 100 years of history in generating electricity, replacing steam turbines with small, modular devices that convert heat to electricity. The company has raised $11 million so far, earning Mankin — who attended Explo in 2002 — a spot on Forbes Magazine’s “30 Under 30” list.
What is the most surprising thing that you have learned as a co-founder of Modern Electron?
I was pleasantly surprised by how fun and satisfying it is to work with a team, and to enable that team to change the world and build your vision. In the real world, the lone genius is very rare; you have to have a team to get anything done. The biggest challenge that we face is attracting and recruiting good people. Scientists all have their own skill sets and tend to want to go in their own directions. In order to make something significant happen you need the skills to be able to convince other people that your ideas are worthwhile and to believe in your vision. I didn't think about that when I was working in an academic lab.
20+ Explo Alums Crack Forbes’ 30 Under 30 List
Every year, the editors at Forbes Magazine feature individuals who are the most innovative in their fields in their 30 Under 30 issue. To date, 20+ Explo Alums are among their number. To all of them, we'd like to offer our most enthusiastic congratulations!
What do you think about the maker movement and 3D printers?
I would have loved to have access to a 3D printer when I was 12. 3D printers are very cool, and a good educational tool, but I am also skeptical. You don’t actually need access to that technology to make things. I am concerned that some kids will be discouraged if they don't have the resources to have access to the latest fancy devices. I learned about electronics by taking apart old appliances and computers and putting them back together. Anyone can go to the dump and repurpose things. I built my Tesla coil out of a bunch of old bug zappers. Challenges are everywhere. Look for a problem that you see in your house or neighborhood or school and use what you have on hand to solve it. On a safety note, I feel compelled to add: do not take apart old televisions sets with the big tubes. They are dangerous!
Do any other early projects stand out in your memory?
In high school my uncle sent me a big box of magnets. I really considered what I was going to do with them and ultimately I made a maglev (magnetic levitation) model train. It never really worked — it only traveled about a foot before derailing — but I certainly learned a lot about magnetism.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I didn't have a particular career in mind, just did what I thought was fun. For me, that meant taking things apart and building new devices. Or electrocuting things. My dad is an electrical engineer and we would tinker in the basement together. My parents were very supportive. I made a Tesla coil in the back yard and almost set the porch on fire. They didn't love that, but they supported my interests.
Did you know that you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
For a long time I had been vaguely interested in starting a company, but again, when I was younger I didn't characterize things that way. Science wasn't a means to an end; I was truly happy mixing two colorless liquids together and discovering that they made something gooey — and then getting to play with it!! My parents made it clear to me that I would need good grades if I wanted to contribute in the field of science, but beyond that I tinkered because it was fun.
You mentioned that your parents were supportive. Did anyone else help you?
I was lucky, my teachers humored me. They could see that I was itching to learn more and they encouraged me to build things for extra credit.
What do you remember about Explo?
I first met Seth Priebatsch (creator of the SCVNGR and LevelUp social gaming sites) at Explo and we wound up at high school together (Hi Seth!). I took a class called Kitchen Chemistry. As you can tell, I was always interested in science — and math and engineering.
What would you say to your Explo self?
I would tell myself that it is okay to pursue passions and interests even if they are different from what other people like or even understand.
Do you have any advice for Explo students today?
Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book called Outliers, examining the idea that in the majority of cases, prodigies aren’t born. Rather, their mastery comes from a minimum of 10,000 hours of practice. My advice is that it is fine to start early on your 10,000 hours; don't let anyone discourage you from doing what interests you as long as it is fun, safe, and productive.