WHITEWATER — The trio grew up together in Fort Atkinson and pay their bills with jobs like pizza delivery and taking care of the flock at a local chicken farm.
Their focus, however, is on making a standard from the past better for the future by improving the way musicians use their amplifiers.
Brennon Garthwait, David Hartwig and Evan Preston formed their company, Renwig Custom, to build tube amplifiers that operate like a digitally controlled amplifier, only without the loss of the full, rich sound that many musicians prefer.
The founders of Renwig have added robotics to a tube amplifier that allows guitar, bass and piano players to change the volume, tone, gain and equalization of their amps with the press of a foot switch. An initial design features four switches allowing four preset sounds to be used. Future designs could allow for dozens of preset sound changes.
The design means greater control for the musician, who can now be more creative and, for some, may no longer have to rely on someone backstage to make the desired adjustments.
"I think there is a serious niche available in the market that we can (fill), providing things musicians want that other companies don't offer," said Hartwig, a UW-Whitewater graduate with a background in robotics. "We're not compromising a single thing in regards to the tube amp."
Renwig Custom is based at the Whitewater Innovation Center, $5.7 million, 38,000-square-foot business incubator that opened a year ago in the 130-acre Whitewater University Technology Park on the city's east side. The park and innovation center are collaborative projects of the city, Whitewater Community Development Authority and UW-Whitewater.
The Innovation Center, the park's first building, is about 70 percent full.
Tenants include Foundry Solutions, a company that produces accelerants for ceramic shells used to make metal parts, and Blackthorne Capital Management, which has partnered with UW-Whitewater to conduct research and develop software for managing financial investment portfolios.
Two more companies are considering space in the facility.
"Most of the tenants I'm recruiting are technology innovation-based companies that are looking for innovation space," said Robert Young, executive director of the technology park. "I'm looking for companies that are looking to take advantage of the resources we have at our university."
Young said the next building he would like to see built in the park is an accelerator, used to grow companies once they get past the incubation stage.
For Renwig, that step may be a few years off.
A take-off from Brennon Garthwait's first name and David Hartwig's last name, Renwig has no full-time employees and is trying to raise $120,000 to begin full production next year. The company operates out of two spaces in the Innovation Center that will allow them to manufacture 30 to 60 amplifiers a month. The first-floor facility is a wood shop where amplifier boxes are crafted from walnut, black ash and yellow pine. The second-floor suite serves as an office and work area where the complex electronics are designed and built.
According to their research, the amplifier industry has grown 58 percent over the past 10 years with about 40 percent of professional musicians using tube amplifiers compared to digital.
"We feel like we've found a really good way to marry those two concepts," said Preston, a graduate of Madison Media Institute.
Funding for the business has been almost entirely from $13,000 in cash and in-kind services won at business plan contests. The three 24-year-old founders have added a few thousand dollars of their own money.
Renwig's rent is covered by the university for three years in exchange for 5 percent equity in the company, said Garthwait, a UW-Whitewater graduate.
One of the biggest wins was an elevator pitch competition that not only awarded the company $5,000 but also a grant to go into the university's Launch Pad program, which mentors new companies and is based at the Innovation Center.
"It was incredibly beneficial," Garthwait said. "We went into that process trying to figure out how we could milk that program, which is entirely what it's there for."