Inventing for Life – An interview with Alex Pacanowsky, class of 1999


When you graduated from SMWS, what were your plans for the near and far future? And how have these changed over the years?

When I graduated from high school I wanted to become an expert in human-machine interfaces and to help people with disabilities re-enable their lives. I planned on living in Seattle. I am pretty sure I planned on owning a Porsche and living in an amazing modern home.

Presently I work as a design engineer for a technology startup in Salt Lake City; previously I worked for my own Seattle based medical device company. I don’t own a Porsche and probably never will. All things considered my life has unfolded much as I dreamed it would back in high school, with two very notable exceptions: Jack and Finn.

I think it is only natural for high school students to have a very self-centered view of their future. Today I have a beautiful wife Kerry, an incredible almost five year old boy, Jack, and an adorable one and a half year old, Finn. The biggest change in my view of the future now, compared with high school, is that now I am no longer at the center of the story; I am no longer the protagonist. In the past I wanted my future to make a mark on the world and I wanted the world to take. Today I see myself as a member of my family, and my plans for the future revolve around our collective success and happiness, independent of what the world thinks.

As for my plans for the far future, I always remember Ms. Sexton talking about her mid-life career change. I believe she was a defense attorney turned Waldorf English teacher. I often think about making a similar change. Sometime way out on the horizon of my imagination I see myself becoming a high school science and engineering teacher. I think I would really enjoy working with high school students and the opportunity to spend summer and school breaks with my family would be priceless.

As an engineer and entrepreneur, how do ideas come to you / find you, or do you find them?

One of my strengths is being Futuristic. I spend all together too much time day dreaming about what might be. It often interferes with my ability to just be in the present. From all that day dreaming I have learned that ideas are a dime a dozen. The real challenge is in the execution of those ideas. For an idea to become successful you can’t just dream it, you have to make it a reality, and that requires convincing the people around you that the idea has merit and that they should join in supporting you. The real magic happens when the right people come together around the right idea and decide to make it happen together; the trick is to surround yourself with the right people.

You’ve worked for other engineering (firms? companies? – help me here…) and created your own companies. What led you to move away from working for someone else?

I have worked at a large US Department of Energy laboratory, and for a three person startup, and a handful of organizations of various sizes in between. I don’t think it’s the size of the organization that matters, or who owns it. For me, it’s the amount of freedom I have to be creative and to grow.

Large corporations are often rigid and too structured. Startups typically lack structure and there is more freedom, but depending on the resources and the stage the startup is in, it can be very stressful and demanding. I think for me the sweet spot is finding a company that encourages me to explore my interests and trusts me to do my own thing. It’s all the fun of working for yourself, but you get to outsource the stress to someone else. It’s not going to make me rich, but it does make me happy.

Today I also really enjoy having the flexibility to come and go when necessary to be with my family. I think most of the people I know work too much. There is nothing wrong with working hard, and you are lucky if you love what you do, but there is a lot of pressure out there to work long hours, and it is a rare company that ask you to work hard and then sends you home when there is nothing left to do. My current employer does that and it makes me very happy. 

Can you tell us a little bit about your inventions and patents? 

alex2The project I have been most proud to have been a part of is a company I co-founded called Cadence Biomedical. Cadence makes an exoskeleton system that helps people with limited mobility to walk. It has been very effective for stroke survivors, for people with partial spinal cord injuries, and for some people with degenerative diseases. The device is very simple, and requires no electronics, motors or batteries. It simply stores energy that is typically wasted when we walk and applies that energy to assist weakened muscles when they need it most. It does that with a very simple spring and pulley system.alex3
Last year, I needed a space heater and was annoyed at how ugly they all were and how much floor space they took up. This inspired me to design a heater hidden inside a piece of artwork that could just hang on the wall. That way it would not take up any extra space, and could be appreciated year round. I finished the design work last fall, and we sold our first units around Christmas time. Now anyone can buy one at (don’t blame me if you don’t like the name, I had nothing do with the marketing). You can even upload your own photo and have it turned into heated artwork for your office or home.

alex4This summer, I am working on custom cooling devices. Peltier junctions are these very cool electrical devise that get hot on one side and cold on the other side when you run a current through them. I am trying to use them to make tiny coolers for items that are hard to cool. I am not sure what the final product will be: A single soda/beer cooler than plugs into your car? A car seat cooler to keeps the car seat from getting too hot when the car sits in the sun during the summer? If anyone out there has a better idea, please send it to me at

If you were to go back to high school today, what might you tell your past self?

Life is not a race. There is no rush. When you are younger there are all these obvious milestones and it can be tempting to rush to cross them off, but when you are older, no one will care about the schedule or sequence you followed to become an adult. Just enjoy the moment. 

If a current SMWS high school student knocked on your door today, what advice would you give them?

I would tell them that there is no substitute for actual experience. It is not enough to study something, to know someone who has done something, or to have the potential to do something. What really counts is having done it, so go do it. 

What is one of your fondest memories of your time with SMWS?

I loved project week, all of them. It was always so exciting to get away from campus and off into the greater world.   The timing always seemed to be just right as well. Not too long after school started in the fall. It was a nice way to truly ease back into the school year.

What was your least favorite thing to do during your time at SMWS? If you did it today, would you still not like it? 

Eurythmy, and no, I probably still would not like it.