Brent Regan loves to solve problems
COEUR d’ALENE — Brent Regan figured out a way to earn $28 an hour as a 13-year-old in California. Yes, it was legal.
To impress a girlfriend a few years down the road, Regan built an electric car for her doctor father, who had been complaining about the Carter-era high cost of gas getting to and from the hospital two miles away.
At 19 he was racing cars he’d built. And winning.
Later, there was the plane he built and raced. And won again.
Along the way the entrepreneur/design engineer/inventor and problem solver built stuff most of us can’t pronounce, let alone comprehend. His creations have made millions for his own and others’ companies. The thing about Brent Regan is this: Once he decides to get into something, he’s all in. Especially when his wife’s life is on the line.
To learn to weld, Regan bought a welder and taught himself.
To learn to fly, he signed up for lessons and built a plane at the same time.
So it should have made perfect sense just over a decade ago that when Regan’s wife, Moura, got sick — really sick — Brent would go beyond the bounds of care that husbands less bent on problem solving might consider.
“She was standing in an entryway one day and she was talking to a doctor about horses,” Brent recalls. “She said later that her head felt like it was filling up with water.”
At the hospital, Moura was told she’d had a stroke. Medicine prescribed to control potentially lethal high blood pressure “basically cooked her kidneys,” Brent says, leading to the conclusion that kidney failure was in the cards.
Brent did what he does best. He learned everything he could about the problem, in this case, damaged kidneys. Moura needed dialysis, and she and her husband quickly became disabused of the treatment. Three or four times a week they’d drive to a dialysis clinic where Moura would spend most of the day receiving treatment.
“(With clinics) you’re always feeling bad with a little bit of good in between,” he explains. “You couldn’t do anything else and you’d feel like hell.”
So Brent got busy. He completely renovated a sewing room in their rural Coeur d’Alene home, converting it to a comfortable dialysis suite with a big, cozy chair and a fireplace. He and Moura went to Seattle, where he trained as a dialysis technician using the very equipment he would purchase and install in their home — out of sight of his patient, of course. Normally, dialysis technician training takes about 10 days, Brent says. It took him three.
“I’d researched it in advance,” he says simply.
But his research and training didn’t adequately prepare him for “the hardest thing on the planet to do. This is why doctors don’t treat their own families,” he says.
Regan holds up twin needles that he would insert into his wife’s arm each day. The objective was to administer dialysis more frequently but for shorter spans.
“She’s nervous, you’re nervous but you can’t show it,” he says. “But because it was daily and I knew her, I could kind of titrate the procedure. We got into a rhythm after awhile.”
And temporarily, at least, the couple began to feel better. Brent would get up at 5 a.m. and go to work in the 9,000 square-foot Regan Designs building on his 180-acre property. At 8 he’d come home, have breakfast and get Moura’s dialysis started. One or more of their three children — Michelle, Matthew and Luke — would keep an eye on their mom while Brent went back to the shop to work. Late each morning, he’d return to the house and finish the dialysis.
“It worked out,” he says. “Three, three and a half hours a day she was tied to a machine. But instead of feeling bad most of the time with a little good in between, she was feeling pretty good most of the time.”
The problem was, the machine kept breaking down. Regan, frustrated by the manufacturer’s inability to remedy the situation, did what any good engineer would do.
“I took my camera out and held my (middle) finger in front of the machine and emailed it to the president of the company,” he says.
The president responded, but not quite as bluntly.
“Basically, he said: ‘If you can do better, have at it.’”
So Regan wrote an 18-page white paper on the problems — and how to fix them. Two weeks later, he had eight engineers from the dialysis machine maker in his home.
“The thing is, they didn’t have any engineers who were also dialysis technicians,” Regan says. “I was the only technician with electromechanical experience.”
One difficulty down, it was only a matter or time until another greater one surfaced. Moura Regan needed a kidney transplant, and for once, her problem-solving husband was powerless to provide a solution.
Power outages have been rare in Brent Regan’s life.
When he zeroes in on something of interest, he masters it. And he’s always managed to make money along the way.
As a 13-year-old he was fascinated by the TV show “Sea Hunt,” so when Brent saw scuba training taking place on the California shores not far from his house, he had to figure out a way to make enough money for lessons.
Brent introduced himself to the instructor and asked how much he was paying for the lead divers used for weights.
“Sixty five cents a pound,” the instructor said.
“If I could provide it for 50,” Brent asked, “would you buy it from me?” The instructor said he would, if the lead was delivered in good condition and in shapes the divers needed.
Brent’s father, Barrie — a problem solver himself and pioneer developer of heart stents — had a pile of scrap lead. Brent asked permission to use it, and his father agreed, even after learning why Brent wanted it. Brent worked feverishly on transforming his dad’s lead into usable form for the divers, and the $28 an hour he earned on average was more than enough to pay for the lessons he so badly wanted.
While that was his capitalistic launch, Regan’s focus evolved into “creating a product around which a company can be built — foundational products for product lines, companies or industries.” But he’s helped build strong companies himself, too. Regan has founded or co-founded five companies in his career.
From 1978 to 1983, Regan, who turns 54 next week, was in the driver’s seat of Porschetech Inc., a company that serviced and raced Porsches.
He then founded Genesis Engineering, which from 1982 to 1986 developed high-performance engines for motorsports.
From 1986 to 1995, he served as president of a company he co-founded that made coronary vascular stents, Regan Stent.
The same year he started Regan Stent, Brent also co-founded Schilling Development — the company that built robotic arms, known in the industry as “advanced telemanipulator systems for hazardous environments.”
And in 1995, Brent founded Regan Designs. He has just one actual employee, Hamid Wasti, who is allowed to work essentially when he wants, where he wants.
“Hamid is one of the most talented engineers I know, and I know a lot,” Regan says.
Occasionally, Regan will also call in the services of an MIT professor for high-end mathematics, but Brent and Hamid comprise the core of their corporate brawn.
Their brains are something else. While Regan didn’t shoot for the stars scholastically — he graduated high school in three years and spent two at a California community college — in 1993 he became a member of the American Mensa Society for people with high IQs. How high is Brent’s? If you push him, you’ll learn that he ranks in the 99.9 percentile of brainiest boys and girls.
Regan’s fascination with politics led him down invention’s path with VoxVerus in 2010. VoxVerus is a social networking system designed to promote communication between voters and their elected officials. But most of his effort — Regan religiously puts in 12-hour days, so he doesn’t just work smart, he works hard — is of the electromechanical kind.
One of his prized creations is the Electronic Flight Bag, which he developed in 1997. It’s a self-contained tablet computer for commercial aviation navigation. Prices start at around $250,000 for one of these babies.
Regan typically gets paid only after delivering a working prototype of a product to a company, which then is left to manufacture the item. That’s counter to the arrangement he had as a principle with Schilling Development, the robotic-arm company that within three years had 90 percent of the world market with companies ranging from major oil companies to NASA. But playing corporate king wasn’t Regan’s style.
“The problem with that is there’s a lot of people management,” he says. “I like to fix problems and design stuff.”
Two of his more fascinating excursions into designing stuff are illustrated by short video accompanying this story. One of them is the ignition system for nine-cylinder Russian M14 airplanes.
“They just flew the first one and it had about a 10 percent improvement in fuel savings,” Regan says. That 10 percent is big. The savings will pay for the ignition system in about 400 hours of flight.
Another cool gadget is the Regan-designed rudder for Wave Glider, a fuel-free scientific device that looks like a surfboard and can cruise anywhere there’s water — which happens to be most of the planet. Wave Gliders can cruise at 2 knots and have been used already to gather data on radioactivity in the water off Japan’s coast and oil content in water in the Gulf of Mexico. They can also measure carbon dioxide changes to help assess global climate change. Two representatives from the start-up came to Regan for help, and his rudder solved one of major problems keeping their idea from floating.
“This is evolutionary technology,” Regan says. “It changes how you do mid-ocean research.”
Regan was a big enough believer in the product that he “traded a bunch of what we did for stock.” That’s not his typical design for remuneration, but to Regan, money isn’t everything. Solving problems is.
“As a designer, you do the impossible for a living,” he says, then adds: “At least, it was impossible until you did it.”
With Hamid at his side and a spacious work facility packed with everything he needs, Regan roars right along.
“We can make just about anything, build just about anything,” he says. “I can fix anything but a broken heart.”
For reasons even he can’t figure out, Regan and his children were spared broken hearts by a problem solver they’d never met in New Mexico.
A renowned horse breeder in California, one of Moura’s prized products was a young Lusitano stallion that was injured by a pasture sprinkler on the family’s sprawling property. To treat the cut in the horse’s chest, Brent, all 6-foot-4 of him, would pin the beast up against a wall while Moura would apply medication into the incision. The stallion survived, growing closer to its human caretakers through the ordeal.
A woman in New Mexico who had been in touch with Moura mentioned that she’d love to own a horse like that someday. As time went by and the women formed something of a long-distance bond, Moura asked the woman what she could pay for the horse, which was likely to fetch $30,000 or more. The woman said the cost would be well beyond her means, but Moura pressed on. She asked what the woman could afford, and in a gesture of great grace, Moura sold the horse for that bargain-basement price.
“Ever since she was a little girl she wanted a horse like this,” Brent says. “She got the horse of her dreams.”
And Moura got sick.
More than a year after their friendship had been crowned by a mutually adored horse, the woman in New Mexico learned of Moura’s illness. She also learned that none of the family members were matches, so the woman said she’d do it. And she meant it.
“The first time we ever met her and her husband was at Sacred Heart in admitting,” Brent says.
With the donated kidney helping return Moura to good health, Regan is reminded that business is business, but friends are priceless.
“The moral of the story is, be nice to people,” Regan says, smiling, “because you never know when you’ll need one of their kidneys.”
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