Alumni Profiles

Phone Bills
John Beane '84 transforms trash into cash.

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Lisa Nugent/UNH Photographic Services

When John Beane '84 catches an episode of "House" or "Gray's Anatomy" on television, it's not the mystery illnesses or romances that kick his heartbeat up a couple of notches—it's the Pyxis MedStation visible in the background of many a scene. A founding engineer for the company that developed and designed the automated medication-dispensing system, Beane says it's thrilling to have helped create a technology so vital that it's become ubiquitous in hospitals across the country—and in TV medical dramas, too.

Beane's newest venture is the ecoATM, a kiosk that offers cash for used cellphones, MP3 players, and tablet devices, working or not. As with the Pyxis machine, Beane worked on the engineering of the kiosk itself, bringing in experts to help with the sophisticated optical scanning and diagnostic technology required to identify a device, assess its condition and value, confirm the identity of the device owner, and then dispense payment on the spot—an average of $30 or $40, but sometimes as high as $350.

A self-described "serial entrepreneur" who holds 11 technology patents, Beane has been a fixture on the San Diego high-tech scene since the mid-1980s, helping to found startups like Bridge Medical, CardioNow, and Asteres, Inc. "I'm not a risk taker when it comes to physical danger," he says, "but I am from a work perspective. I like it when everything's on the line. Honestly, I'm a bit psycho that way."

Beane got involved with ecoATM in 2008, shortly after the company's San Diego-based founder, Mark Bowles, read that fewer than 3 percent of cellphones were being recycled. Bowles concluded that a bank ATM-style kiosk could offer the convenience and ease of use generally lacking in the recycling options available at the time—and that Beane, who owns 10 patents in automated kiosk technology, was the man to develop it.

In every venture Beane has been involved with, his role has been to invent technology that didn't exist for markets that had yet to be established. In the case of ecoATM, he helped build a prototype—an oversized wooden unit nicknamed Bessie—and set it up in a market where resistance to new technology would likely be high: Omaha, Neb. Assured by skeptics that Bessie, plunked down with no advertising in the Nebraska Furniture Mart, would be lucky to take in two phones a week, the ecoATM team instead saw a tremendous response, shipping used phones back to San Diego by the truckload.

Phil Scalia

Convinced the idea was a winner, Beane went to work refining the kiosk and its technology for widespread use. Today, the company is installing 20 to 30 units per week, with 434 machines in 29 states. (There are two in New Hampshire: one at the Mall of New Hampshire in Manchester, and another at the Mall at Rockingham Park in Salem.) Beane estimates the number of kiosks will grow to 1,000 by the end of the year and possibly double that by the end of 2014.

The drop-off process at the kiosk, designed to be user friendly for even the least tech-savvy customer, takes only three to four minutes. It's also highly secure, requiring a valid customer ID and visual identification that verifies a device's ownership to complete the transaction.

Approximately 80 percent of ecoATM devices are refurbished and resold; the rest are smelted and their rare metals extracted for use in a new generation of phones.

A math major who discovered a taste for technology while hanging out with engineering friends at UNH, Beane never expected to wind up on an entrepreneurial path. "You need a certain amount of optimism for this work," he says, "because most startups are far more likely to fail than succeed. In fact, I've done a number of things that I have been told by experts were impossible."

And while it's been fun to see some of his inventions find their way into cameo appearances on TV, for Beane, what's really satisfying is the work itself. Even the failures. "There's always something you learn in the process," he says. Spoken like a true optimist.

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