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Winter 2014/15


When he needs to evaluate a challenge or solve a dilemma

he’ll go for a run. Gramm was between assignments as

a business consultant, and was contemplating appealing

opportunities including a couple offers to manage start-up

enterprises. He was relaxed, comfortable, and was cruising

along at a leisurely pace.

Suddenly, without warning, a collection of images started

to flow through his imagination. “They were crystal clear,

and I have no idea why they started and continued,” he said

later. In that series of thoughts he saw a solar panel folded

into a black, suitcase-like apparatus, with a shoulder strap

for transport. Gramm—possessing little technological

knowledge—even envisioned the particulars of how the

portable energy device and the single folding solar panel

would function.

“The pictures I was imagining were completely life-like,”

Gramm recalled. “The realism was startling. It felt like it was

a message from a higher power.”

During that set of mysterious images Gramm not only

visualized a new product, a portable solar generator, he also

imagined its applications to developing nation populations

needy for connections to electricity. “Those visions

immediately and strongly conveyed to me that such a device

had important applications to people who were desperate for

access to power, for people who lived far from the grid,” he

explained. “I was seeing images of this portable solar device

powering small refrigerators cooling vital vaccines in isolated

locations. I saw residents of developing nations powering

and charging laptop computers. I saw health care workers

using it to serve the sick, and street corner vendors using it

to charge cell phones and hand-held devices. I saw a business

opportunity vividly presenting itself.”

The alternative energy industry had already been part of

Gramm’s life. As a business consultant, the USD Beacom

School of Business graduate had dealt closely with a solar

firm based in Ohio. But that company produced larger solar

panels, not the small ones he’d seen in his vision.

No one has ever accused Brian Gramm of procrastination.

The Parkston, S.D. native is a doer, a maker, a guy who can

work comfortably with both high-level financiers and hands-

on engineers. He describes himself as a serial entrepreneur.

Within weeks, his portable electrical generator vision

was moving toward reality. He’d already investigated the

competition, and learned that other than clumsy, build-it-

yourself solar kits brimming with problematic characteristics

and inadequate power output, there wasn’t any.

He came up with a name for his company—Peppermint

Energy, so chosen because he viewed his yet-to-be-developed

product as reflecting a clean, fresh source of energy. And he

sought help from the state of South Dakota, through its office

of economic development. He then snatched up a couple

of capable employees, solicited and convinced supportive

investors, and moved his fledgling enterprise into the

South Dakota Technology Business Center in Sioux Falls.

After a year at the tech center, he and Peppermint’s growing

team of employees moved into their own offices in southern

Sioux Falls.

Dr. Mel Ustad is a commercialization expert for South

Dakota’s Governor’s Office of Economic Development. In 2011

he began helping Gramm piece together expertise to create his

product and launch his business. “We helped Brian use two

important programs,” said Ustad. “The EPSCoRE program,

a National Science Foundation program, helped Brian

identify and utilize South Dakota-based experts in the areas

of electronics and photovoltaics in order to create his product.

And we also helped him with the Dakota Seeds program, and

that helped him hire skilled graduate students who could work

with Brian to advance his product and business.”

Gramm also attracted vital seed money for Peppermint

using an online forum called Kickstarter. Gramm’s financial

objective through Kickstarter was met and exceeded in just

several days, and that affirmed the basic appeal and potential

value of his idea. A compelling, short film created by a local

Sioux Falls advertising firm and posted on the Kickstarter

website was a key feature of the highly successful Kickstarter

fundraising campaign.

The technology and hardware aspects of the invention

moved forward at a slow but steady rate. Over several years, as

many as 100 engineers and designers played a role in product

development. The portable, solar-powered generator initially

conceptualized by Gramm was slightly smaller than the

technology that eventually came to fruition. Originally, he

pondered creating a smallish, 20-pound device; the finished

product—formally named Forty2—remains relatively

compact, lightweight and easily toted. It grew larger, said

Gramm, so it could offer greater energy for more uses,