Montana State University

MSU grads make splash in Times Square

March 26, 2008 -- By Tracy Ellig, MSU News Service


Bryan Robertus stands in front of the ABC Studio sign in Times Square. Robertus' company, Bozeman-based Advanced Electronic Designs, engineered and designed the 50-foot tall sign. (Photo courtesy of Bryan Robertus.)   High-Res Available

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What's arguably the biggest, brightest, and most photographed sign in New York's Times Square was designed and engineered by six Montana State University graduates who've made a successful business by putting creativity and challenge at the center of their work.

At 130 feet long and more than 50 feet high, the ribboned, curved sign at 7 Times Square highlights the ABC studio home to such iconic television shows as "Good Morning America," "Nightline" and "20/20."

The sign's current design and engineering was put in place in October and is the work of Bozeman-based Advanced Electronic Designs, a firm founded by MSU electrical engineering graduate Bryan Robertus in his basement in 1994.

"I started moonlighting by myself in 1994, went full-time on Jan. 1, 1995 and, literally, I've been busy ever since," Robertus said.

Today, he runs his company from a 7,000-square-foot building he owns and employs five engineers and one administrative assistant. Having focused his business on specialty engineering, Robertus is in the enviable position of having more work than he can accept and only taking jobs that interest him.

"We specialize in cutting-edge products," Robertus said. "We like challenging things, the kinds of things that push the envelope. We choose the fun jobs."

One of the company's first jobs was to design and engineer a film-editing console with the knobs, switches and dials of 1970's technology, but with a modern, computer-driven editing system hidden within.

"The main reason these units were made was that George Lucas wanted to edit the Star Wars trilogy on the kind of console he had when he started in the 1970s, but he wanted the capabilities of cutting-edge computer editing," Robertus said.

AED has also engineered robotics to control movie cameras on the top of small, portable towers for the film industry as well as the technology needed to control the drying rooms for cereal-box printers.

"The ink on the cereal boxes needs time to dry before the boxes can be stacked," Robertus said. "Controlling the temperature and humidity in such a process is very complex if you want to dry the boxes as fast as possible with the least amount of energy."

"We focus on solving problems in creative ways," Robertus said. "We're able to be very efficient and nimble. That adds to the fun. We don't have to get bogged down in red tape."

When he started his business, Robertus vowed he'd never have employees, but needing a unique piece of equipment 1998, and short on time and resources, he sponsored a senior design project at MSU for two students.

Senior design projects are required for all graduating engineers at MSU. They are opportunities to tackle a real-world problem, with a real-world budget as a team.

Robertus was so impressed with the work of the two students he sponsored that he hired them both: Jason Kay of Alaska and Jon Koon of Avon.

"After a few months working on our senior design project with Bryan, we were hooked on his ability to provide solutions to fun and challenging projects," Koon said. "I can say with confidence that we have had a better opportunity to learn real engineering than any of our peers."

Robertus went on to hire three other MSU grads -- and boasts that the electrical engineering GPA of the company is 3.9.

"Any company would have killed to hire all these guys in one shot," said John Hanton, who taught Robertus and all of his employees while an electrical engineering professor at MSU from 1964 to 2000.

"He's got the cream of the crop," Hanton said. "They are an incredibly talented, and just really nice, group of people. In Bryan's case, he was one of the 10 best students I ever saw."

Robertus is also proud of his staff.

"These guys are nothing like the stereotype of the socially awkward engineer who stares down at his shoes and wears a pocket protector," Robertus said. "Everyone here is a well-rounded individual as well as very talented. One of those talents is the ability to talk with clients. All of us are able to be on product calls with customers."

AED's office and its website are not typical for the engineering and design industry. There is a small waterfall in the lobby, hip-looking, cobalt-blue, light sconces on the walls, and a granite slab conference table that the team designed to be heated.

The stock inspirational photos found in many corporate offices adorn the walls, but with a subtle twist. The caption for a high-end photo of a snowball rolling downhill reads "Teamwork." But in small letters underneath it reads "A few harmless flakes working together can unleash an avalanche of destruction."

"Our main goal is not profitability, but to provide an enjoyable place to work for all of us," Robertus said. "The day one of us walks into work and says they hate their job, then we're doing something wrong."

Contact: Bryan Robertus, Advanced Electronic Designs, (406) 585-8892, or by e-mail at bryan.robertus@advanced.pro