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May 26, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, May 26, 2004

A 'flare' for entrepreneurship A 'flare' for entrepreneurship (May 26, 2004)

Local inventor and part-time police officer Ken Dueker starts company dedicated to public safety.

by Avital Binshtock

The idea came to Ken Dueker, a Palo Alto police reservist, while trying to order electronic highway flares for his department. He was frustrated with the ones that resembled dynamite sticks -- they were hard to use, rarely stayed lit and let off noxious chemicals.

He scoured the Web and questioned wholesalers and was bothered when the search for an electronic safety beacon proved fruitless. So he decided to make one himself, and PowerFlare was born.

"That's what happens when you irritate a part-time cop," he joked.

Dueker's brightly colored flares, about the size and shape of hockey pucks, are durable enough to withstand being repeatedly run over by fire trucks and are equipped with a computer chip and light-emitting diodes (invented by another local company, Hewlett-Packard). Although PowerFlare uses rocket science technology, Deuker said, "It's a simple product from a simple idea."

Dueker joined the police force in 1999, after selling a semiconductor company he started, C Speed, for an undisclosed sum. There was also a two-year stint at a Palo Alto venture firm, Ridgewood Capital.

"The irony is that I did the part-time police thing to balance out my life," Dueker said.

Dueker grew up in Atherton and moved to Portola Valley after graduating from Harvard Law School with a specialty in patents. "I'm an inventor," he said. "I grew up around here, it's in my blood."

Though physically, Dueker is imposing and robust, his mannerisms are friendly and unpretentious. When he talks about his company, he glows with passion, eloquently presenting PowerFlare's selling points.

Despite his venture capital background, Dueker started PowerFlare in 2003 with no such investment. Instead, he asked family and friends to become part owners by putting in whatever they could.

"It's kind of like an extended family business," Dueker said. "It's all good faith."

After rounding up three co-founders, Dueker designed PowerFlare's first prototype on his computer. He recruited engineers, since his background is more legal and managerial. "I knew the technology well enough to tell them what I wanted," he said. So far, PowerFlare has four patents in the pipeline.

His corporate headquarter is located in his garage. "We don't have big fake dreams of going public," Dueker said. PowerFlare has already earned him few hundred thousand dollars, an amount he refers to as "miniscule."

Dueker said his focus remains more on his product's public service aspect than its profitability: "The impetus for this was not to make a mint, it was to save lives."

Sgt. Scott Wong, the Palo Alto Police Department's traffic team supervisor considers traffic control one of the most dangerous aspects of police work. Most accidents happen at night, he explained, when visibility is already bad. The flares' smoke often makes matters worse.

Plus, Wong said, "A lot of times, they don't light when you need them instantaneously.

"We go through cases and cases of flares every year," Wong added. Of Dueker's invention, Wong said, "The technology he came up with is monumental."

Dueker packages PowerFlares in one of two ways: a pack of six that costs $499.95 and goes in the backs of fire trucks. The other is just the single product, $39.95, meant for civilians

Though, PowerFlares are currently only available from Dueker's Web site (www.powerflare.com) or through a governmental wholesaler, he hopes to sell them in retail stores in the future.

"My idea was to mix entrepreneurism with public service," he said. "I'm looking forward to saving lives with this."

Editorial intern Avital Binshtock can be e-mailed at abinshtock@paweekly.com.


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