GVSU Innovator of the Year enjoys ‘cool, fun projects’

Innovating is a part of Pete Hoffswell’s DNA. It’s not just a talking point, it’s integrated into his daily process.

“What do I do for fun when I’m not innovating? Well, I guess I innovate.”

Hoffswell, Broadband Services superintendent at the Holland Board of Public Works, was named the 2020 Grand Valley State University Lakeshore Innovator of the Year for developing a “smart brick” temperature sensor for the BPW. 

The smart brick collects temperature data on sidewalks and roads across Holland to calculate the effectiveness of the city’s snowmelt system. Hoffswell’s innovation helps the BPW team keep the streets safe from the dangers of ice, snow, and slush.

Contest entry

Hoffswell’s project didn’t happen overnight. His initial proof of concept started in 2016 as an entry for a contest through Hackster, a makers sourcing site. The snowmelt project was originally pitched to his team at BPW, with the end result of cutting energy costs that in turn saves the community money. 

Pete Hoffswell's smart brick collects temperature data on sidewalks and roads across Holland to calculate the effectiveness of the city’s snowmelt system.
His prototype won the contest, with the award show hosted in Las Vegas. Even though a majority of the West Coast attendees were more interested in the concept of snowmelt than the actual sensor, an attendee connected with him and shared a low-power microcontroller (a small microchip computer). 

This allowed Hoffswell to develop the sensor to run on battery power so the concept could be implemented into bricks. The smart bricks are seamlessly placed within the sidewalks throughout downtown. With the addition of an open-access radio system, Hoffswell’s prototype transformed them into a data system that allows BPW to target problem areas in real time.

“That’s the big win,” he said. “When you do a cool, fun project that has value to the organization.” 

Early interest

Hoffswell’s journey to becoming an award-winning innovator started at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. His father was an electrical engineer who worked for the physics research lab, where Hoffswell frequently visited as a child. The university also had one of the earliest grade school education computers. 

“I got bitten by the bug of technology and computers, and knew at the age of 12 that I was going to get a degree in computer science.” 

After moving to Holland, his wife’s hometown, Hoffswell met with fellow innovators to start Lakeshore Makers, a group that connects resources, ideas, and mentors through maker-focused programs. 

“We wanted to share our passion with the rest of the community of discovering, making, and learning new things,” he said. 

Providing opportunities

In 2015, Lakeshore Makers started the Big Red Learn to Solder Project at Tulip Time’s Kinderplaats. The program teaches students how to solder, with the final design becoming a battery-powered LED Big Red Lighthouse. The project has continued to grow in the community, including partnerships with Hope College and the Herrick District Library. 

One of Hoffswell’s favorite stories from the program is when a student who had completed the project asked, “What would I be if I did this when I grew up?” 

Hoffswell responded that an electrical engineer would solder for a living. The student turned to his mother and said, “Mom, I want to be an electrical engineer when I grow up.”

“That is one of the key reasons I started Lakeshore Makers, to provide opportunities to people,” Hoffswell said. “We can open the doors of opportunity for other people that helps them to find that passion and love to innovate.” 

Accessible, collaborative

Hoffswell believes innovation should be accessible to everyone and ideas should be shared collaboratively. 

“(Innovation is taking) something that’s been done before and just changing it in a certain way to make it more useful for a particular thing or one step better than it used to be,” he said. 

Whether it’s finding a more efficient way to brush your teeth or soldering an LED lighthouse, Hoffswell believes innovation takes resources, deadlines, and passion. 

“Set yourself targets that are realistic and deadlines you’re going to make, and you’ll make progress,” he said. “A world-changing invention is tough, but innovation isn’t tough and it’s a valuable thing.” 

Other applications

The value of Hoffswell’s snowmelt innovation is continuing to expand. He’s collaborating with Holland’s water reclamation and water services departments to use the network he developed for sensing water flow. The Outdoor Discovery Center is also collaborating with Hoffswell to use a network to collect real-time water flow of runoff into the Macatawa Watershed. 

For his day job, Hoffswell runs the BPW’s community-owned fiber-optic infrastructure. According to Hoffswell, the fiber-optic network is still innovative for cities across the country, even 20 years after its installation. 

If his work didn’t keep him busy enough, he’s been spending extra quarantine hours participating in a user-experience focus group for Facebook’s Oculus virtual reality headsets. 

Hoffswell’s innovation is a reflection of community-based problem-solving shared among makers and computer scientists. He has translated his passion for problem-solving to develop ideas that begin as small concepts into solutions to complex systems.

Read more about Pete Hollfswell:

Holland maker lends resources to help fight COVID-19
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Read more articles by Luke Ferris.