During almost a year of conducting more than 150 interviews and writing even more articles, there was one name that kept being mentioned frequently as a key catalyst for entrepreneurs in the Knoxville-Oak Ridge region.
The person whose name was mentioned repeatedly was Sam Weaver, so we decided to sit down with him in late 2012 for an extended interview. He currently serves as Chairman of Cool Energy and President and Chief Executive Officer of Proton Power.
The quiet spoken, unassuming Weaver has touched a number of lives – from Mike Carroll (MK Technologies) to Dick Nixdorf (Industrial Ceramic Solutions) and Bud Helton (E & L Enterprises). He has also been involved in at least 10 start-ups in the more than 40 years since he left Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in 1970.
Our interview lasted more than three hours, but it seemed to move quickly as we learned more about this servant entrepreneur who has devoted a lifetime to technology, new companies and inspiring others.
We met Weaver in an unassuming former residence in the Roane Regional Business and Technology Park. Weaver’s “office,” which appeared to be a conference room, incorporates one of the walls from the original log cabin built on the site in 1804. Just up the road is the building where his latest venture – Proton Power – is finishing out space for its production facility.
Weaver is not “from these parts,” as locals like to say. In fact, he says that he was born in Minot, ND “four weeks before Pearl Harbor.” The family relocated to Hollister, MO soon after his birth when his parents, his mother’s sister and her husband bought a hotel. After the men volunteered for the military, the women ran the hotel.
As far as his interest in technology and his passion for starting companies, Weaver admits that he comes by those tendencies naturally.
“My great grandfather was a civil engineer,” he explains. “My father wanted to be one, but the Great Depression precluded his goal.” When his opportunity came, Sam Weaver enrolled in Southwest Missouri State College where he spent two years in pre-engineering courses.
“I took a personality test (at Southwest Missouri) that said I should not pursue engineering,” he recalls. It did not deter him at all. He transferred to the Missouri School of Mines (now the Missouri Institute of Science and Technology) where he majored in metallurgy with an additional concentration in nuclear engineering.
Weaver’s transition to college life did not occur without an early challenge. He explained that his father eventually went into the ceramics business after he returned from World War II, but “Japanese imports put him out of business.” Undeterred by his latest entrepreneurial endeavor, Weaver said his father “took $1,000 saved for my college education and used it to found a retail furniture business.”
Over his life, Weaver’s father became a community leader, a trait that the son still admires to this day.
After graduating from college, Weaver joined Pratt & Whitney at its Middletown, CT plant where he was part of the space nuclear program. He recalls that “the day I left to go get married (was) the day they shut down the plant.”
Like his father, he was undeterred by the experience. The newly married Weavers even took a three-week honeymoon and eventually landed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, working with Bill Harms, Jim Scott and Dave McElroy in the Ceramics Group and Physical Properties Laboratory in the old Metals and Ceramics Division.
“The work was interesting,” Weaver said although acknowledging that it was the lowest paying offer that he had at the time.
NEXT: The entrepreneurial bug captures Weaver’s imagination of what is possible.