Bak USA: A Social Enterprise Manufacturing Tablets and Laptops
“We are focused on purpose-designed devices,” J.P. Bak, CEO of Buffalo-based tablet maker Bak USA says of his computer company’s values-focused mission. Bak USA, which opened in 2015, is the culmination of years of work by J.P. and his wife Ulla, a pair of Danish lawyers who decided to sell their law practice to move into science and technology in the U.S. decades ago. With Bak USA, they’ve set out to create a niche among technology device companies: Rather than competing with large retail leaders or outsourcing manufacturing, their tablets and laptops are manufactured in the United States, and priced accessibly for schools and in-field professional use for hospitals, fire and police departments and construction projects. “We are a social enterprise, and we want to stay like that,” Bak says.
The Baks both come from families with ties to science and entrepreneurship, making the transition from law into STEM a natural one. “My grandfather was an entrepreneur back in 1912 — he was into technology and the components and imported the first radio to Denmark from the U.S,” Bak says, explaining the decision to move into technology in California. The couple relocated to California and ran a Silicon Valley-based manufacturer of microchips for military use from 1998 to 2007 before they retired.
In 2010, a devastating earthquake in Haiti prompted the Baks to come out of retirement. They went to Haiti to help and stayed, opening a tablet manufacturing business, Surtab, in Port-au-Prince in early 2013. With a grant and encouragement from USAID, the Baks were able to help transition the company into the hands of people in Haiti so that it could be maintained after they left. The company is now run by local investors.
After their experience overseas, the couple retired again, returning to Pittsburgh to be closer to their daughter. But again they grew restless. They decided to replicate the model from Haiti in the U.S., drawing on their connections in the science community at schools including Columbia University and the University at Albany, a State University of New York school.
Ultimately, they decided that Buffalo, N.Y. would be the best incubator for Bak USA. “It was an easy choice to pick Buffalo as the new home of our venture,” Bak says, “it’s livable, and a low-cost area, and they have a huge workforce, and Buffalo is ready for business.” The company has 80 employees, and plans to grow its workforce even more following the 10,000-square-foot expansion of its office, which now includes two entire floors of Buffalo’s Compass East building — a mixed-use site that includes apartments and medical services. The new office space includes floor-to-ceiling glass for meeting rooms, as well as hand-built workstations.
Bak’s aim is part business, part service — to create computers that can be used by both schoolchildren and their teachers, for instance, with a price-point and functionality tailored to each market and user. “You only pay for what you need,” Bak says. That mission caught the eye of Microsoft and Intel, now the preferred distributor of Bak USA products, a major step for a smaller, mission-driven company, Bak says. All of the devices are also designed to be high quality, incorporating materials like Corning Gorilla® Glass.
The company focuses on a handful of products: a tablet; a two-in-one laptop-tablet for K-12 students; and another for in-field use that is being used by the United Nations in Ethiopia, for instance, Bak says. They are also broadly applicable for various in-field purposes. For instance, in 2016, after partnering with Delaware North — a Buffalo-based food, venue and hotel management company — that company facilitated the use of the Bak Seal 8 tablet at Cleveland’s Progressive Field ballpark for mobile payments during the World Series.
“We are growing on all fronts,” Bak explains. “Buffalo is in some kind of renaissance. You see cranes. There’s a high spirit, about all the new stuff” — just the kind of commotion a new, practical tech company wants, with the kind of thinking that distinguishes it from a major device creator. Bak USA is working to get tech devices into the hands that need them.
A New Model
Working off its longstanding focus on manufacturing in the United States, Bak USA has expanded its capabilities to develop its own in-house product workshop where the company’s engineering, development, and advanced manufacturing processes can collaborate to create new designs. “We are committed to establishing American cities as global centers for high-tech development and manufacturing,” Bak says, “so the opportunity to develop and enhance our research and development on-site — as well with international leaders in the industry — puts us at a distinct advantage to do so.”
The company also works closely with the University at Buffalo to train and recruit, and is a part of the START-UP New York program. “We hire from the University at Buffalo and other universities, the top, stellar students,” Bak says. Nearly one-third of Bak USA’s employees come from the University at Buffalo, including graduates in technology, marketing, design and other areas.
Bak USA also focuses on using the training model developed in Haiti to produce a team of what they call “builders.” “We don’t have an assembly line — each builder assembles a tablet or device from A to Z,” Bak says, “and that is a life-changing thing because quality of life goes up and quality of devices goes up, because each operator is responsible.” For builder jobs, Bak says, “we still go for the smartest and the most passionate, but we don’t ask too much about their school.” Instead, the company focuses on workforce development, providing job opportunities and certifications for people who may have lost jobs, or lack some areas of training.
These are “people who might have been lost in the system,” Bak says, but are given an opportunity to grow with a new company. In that way, Bak USA wants to be forward-thinking for its manufacturing jobs. The workspace also overlooks the Buffalo skyline, and each workstation is built in-house with a hexagon formation designed to foster teamwork. The overall space is designed to be state of the art — a safe and beautiful office environment, Bak USA says.
A Social Company
“What we are trying to do is make it really attractive and cool to work in the manufacturing business,” Bak says. That manufacturing component ties in with Buffalo’s extensive history in manufacturing and Governor Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion project — a commitment of $1 billion to help stimulate new growth in the region through areas like advanced manufacturing, life sciences, and healthcare. Bak USA has also partnered with Buffalo Manufacturing Works, also a part of the Buffalo Billion project, to develop advanced manufacturing technologies including “cobots,” which help automate the work processes that can be dangerous, repetitive or difficult for employees.
Bak USA works to recruit a diverse staff, including the hiring of 14 different nationalities with 27 languages among its first 30 employees. From a public service perspective, it provides devices to hospitals, as well as children with disabilities, focusing on social impact through its for-profit umbrella, and considers its work to hire within Buffalo a net positive for the economy and community.
“We have a lot of schools and schoolchildren that come here to see how things are built,” Bak adds. Sometimes the students weigh in to provide feedback on the devices. “That’s one of the things I really like — to excite younger kids to be part of this technology.” For the Baks, who now live in an apartment in Buffalo, it’s a new chapter in growing a different kind of business. This one combines technology, diversity and American manufacturing through their considered design and individual relationships with customers. “A market niche takes longer to build than just putting our products in the window,” says Bak, who isn’t looking to retire again anytime soon, and wants to see the company flourish. “We want to make sure what we deliver to them is exactly what they need.”