Meet the Entrepreneurs That Obama Highlighted

Last Updated Jan 26, 2011 1:31 PM EST

President Obama did a lot more than mention small business in his State of the Union address -- it was the theme of the night.

America is about small businesses that do big things, the president said. "In America, innovation doesn't just change our lives. It is how we make our living," he said.

And to show what he meant, he highlighted two small companies that get the importance of pushing forward, one that was able to pivot and adapt itself to the needs of a modern market, and one that was able to innovate at just the right time. Here's what you can learn from their stories.

Luma Resources
Michigan brothers Gary and Robert Allen have been partners in the family business -- Allen Brothers, Inc., a roofing products manufacturing company -- for 25 years. But when the Recession hit and half of their factory sat empty, they sprung into action. With a $500,000 grant from the Stimulus Act and a $200,000 loan loan from Michigan's Department of Energy, Labor & Economic Growth, the brothers were able to retool their business by inventing a line of solar-powered shingles, and converting their empty factory space to produce them. The new company, Luma Resources, allow them to expand and redefine their business, and it created 20 new local jobs.

What they did right: It wasn't just the well-timed pivot, it was how the company pivoted. The roofing experts could have gone the traditional route and simply looked for a better way to affix conventional solar panels to existing roof structures. But "solar has been in the test tube," Robert told Xconomy Detroit earlier this month, "and not in the hands of contractors." Within two years, Luma took solar out of the lab and into the field and came up with their "plug-and-play" kit that comes with 60 shingles and all of the parts necessary for installation. Plus, it can scale easily for commercial buildings. It's great technology, yes, but it solves a good problem, too.

Center Rock, Inc.
Last summer, when Brandon Fisher saw the news that 33 Chilean miners were trapped underground, he knew he had to do something. His business, Center Rock Inc. specialized in innovative drilling technology -- their motto is "Drill Faster. Run Harder. Work Smarter" -- and he believed he could find a way to bring the miners to safety. Fisher developed the necessary technology and a rescue plan, known as Plan B. He went to Chile, where he spent 37 days drilling a hole big enough for the miners to be pulled out of the ground.

What they did right: So how did a little drilling company based in Berlin, Penn., get the attention of officials in Chile? First, it helps to have a great product with a great reputation. But just as important, Fisher's company leaned heavily on its strong industry connections. His head of sales contacted the regional Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Commission, a Pennsylvania agency that connects manufacturing companies with international trade representatives. That agency had a rep in Chile who then connected with one of Center Rock's distributors Driller's Supply International. The distributor helped break down the language barrier and ultimately convince the Chilean officials that this little company from Pennsylvania had a viable plan. It took local, regional, and international connections, but the company arrived in Chile less than a month after the accident.

The story of Center Rock resonated so much with the president that a quote from one of its workers became the tagline of his speech: "We proved that Center Rock is a little company, but we do big things."

  • Elise Craig

    Elise Craig has written for BusinessWeek, MarketWatch and washingtonpost.com. She is an alumna of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Georgetown University, and a huge fan of Hoya basketball.