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Bak USA’s link with UB is vital and growing stronger

From left to right, Bak USA founders Ulla and JP Bak, and UB alumnus Bilel Neji, head of product design and development at Bak USA. Credit: Douglas Levere.

“We are part of the university”

By Grove Potter

Release Date: November 2, 2016

“UB is the prime factor for why we are here in Buffalo.”
Ulla Bak, president
Bak USA

Workers assemble tablets at Bak USA in downtown Buffalo. Credit: Douglas Levere.

Workers assemble tablets at Bak USA in downtown Buffalo. Credit: Douglas Levere.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The link between Bak USA – maker of computers and tablets in downtown Buffalo – and the University at Buffalo, is strong and growing stronger.

From interns and engineers it has hired, to professors who have reached out to help the startup, UB has played a major role in the success of the social/business enterprise.

“UB is the prime factor for why we are here in Buffalo,” said Ulla Bak, president of the company.

The fast-growing 63-person firm has emerged as a successful social enterprise whose mission is twofold: to build and sell computers and to hire locals – including new immigrants and people from the surrounding East Side neighborhood. Reviving manufacturing while empowering people from impoverished areas makes it more than simply a balance sheet-driven business.

The company grew out of a social enterprise in Haiti that Ulla Bak and her husband, JP, started after the deadly 2010 earthquake left the island nation in ruins. The Baks sought to employ people in a small tablet making plant, and never considered it a viable business. But to enter a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) grant contest, they had to describe the operation as a business.

“And we won!” said JP Bak, CEO of the company.

The Baks sold the Haitian firm to local operators and brought the concept to the U.S. Initially lured by the START-UP NY tax-free business program, the Baks selected Buffalo as their headquarters.

That was 22 months ago, and the company is now on a steep growth trajectory. It is expanding onto another floor of the Compass East Building at Michigan Avenue and Clinton Street (formerly Sheehan Memorial Hospital), and plans to expand its manufacturing operation to 100 people.

“Talent is needed in every department,” said Eva Bak, chief people officer. But Ulla Bak noted that while they only hire “the best of the best,” new hires must fit with the company’s social enterprise philosophy. “We are also interested in their emotional intelligence.”

The company now has 11 UB graduates: two engineers, four customer service representatives, three production workers and one in marketing. The 11th is Ulla Bak, who attended UB in the summer of 1974 as part of an exchange program from the law school at the University of Copenhagen.

“We are thrilled to have Bak as a partner,” said Christina Orsi, UB associate vice president for economic development. “They are a model for how START-UP NY can attract companies to locate in New York State and engage with UB.

“Bak is providing intern opportunities for students, hiring graduates, leveraging faculty expertise for research and development and they have served as guest speakers at several UB events. We look forward to our continued partnership and Bak’s growth in Buffalo.”

Bilel Neji, who holds a PhD from UB, is head of product design and development. He said having a company like Bak USA so close at hand, is an opportunity for UB students.

Engineering students can often have a difficult time finding a firm to take on their projects, but “for UB students, if you have something to prove, you can come here and we can make a prototype,” Neji said.

Albert H. Titus, professor and chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, a multidisciplinary unit that includes the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Science at UB and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, said he became aware of Bak USA through Neji, whom he taught as a graduate student. Titus has helped place a couple of interns at Bak, one of whom is looking into biomedical applications for the Bak tablets.

Another company Titus is consulting with also is considering working with Bak.

That personal connection, with Neji and with other companies, is generally how lasting alliances get started, he said.

Bak USA has a new partnership with Microsoft that means their devices are Windows-based with Intel processors and they can easily sync with a desk computers. In addition, Microsoft will handle the distribution of Bak products.

The Baks had hoped to inspire local manufacturers to become their suppliers, but that has not happened yet.

“We know they will come,” JP Bak said. “We didn’t exist before. I think it’s a matter of time. There will be small companies that jump on the ship.”

The company’s long-range plans are to fill its space in Buffalo, and then open other satellite companies in other distressed urban areas. In that way, it will be keeping with its social mission.

But Buffalo will remain the company’s headquarters, and its connection with UB will remain strong.

“We are part of the university,” JP Bak said.

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