John Schott: From ‘nerdy kid’ to engineering entrepreneur

If you have a picture in mind of the stereotypical engineer as a middle schooler, John Schott is probably who you're thinking about. In 1970, at age 13, he got excited when his parents bought him a $150 graphing calculator from Texas Instruments.

John Schott

He's the one who created strobe-light images of a ball dropping in a pitch-black room so he could derive the gravitational constant from his measurements. Don't know what the gravitational constant is? Schott did. He won the eighth-grade science fair with that project.

"I was one of those typical nerdy kids. I knew what I wanted to be when I was in eighth grade," said Schott, who earned a bachelor's in electrical engineering from Washington University in St. Louis in 1980. "I knew I wanted to be an engineer."

It didn't hurt that a close family relative of young John was a chemical engineer from DuPont and often took time to explain complex math and engineering principles — and their practical impact.

The mentor has long since passed away, but John Schott's passion for engineering has only grown.

Today, he's the owner and president of EPIC Systems Inc., which just celebrated its 20th year in south St. Louis County. Schott's $25 million engineering and manufacturing firm counts household names such as Duracell, Nestlé and Procter & Gamble among its clients and has made Inc. Magazine's list of the 5,000 fastest-growing private companies seven times — including the past four consecutive years.

Schott's firm works with companies to turn their concepts into large-scale manufacturing operations. If scientists develop a formula for a new carpet cleaner that effectively removes red wine from carpets, Schott's team creates the process to scale the cleaner from a lab to pilot plant or full-scale production plant. The client could then use EPIC to create a full packaging system to ship hundreds or thousands of bottles of cleaner a week.

"Our clients have a formula for their product," Schott said. "It could be a complex chemical reaction. Maybe it has to be heated to a certain temperature or held to a specific pH level," Schott said. "We do all the things that make that happen in a streamlined, automated production system."

Like his love of engineering, Schott's desire to become an entrepreneur sprouted early. He held onto it through 15 years of engineering tours at Monsanto, French Gerleman and Procter & Gamble. His first client was Procter & Gamble, where a former mentor took a chance on a young automation engineer.

"You don't need a lot of startup capital, but you do need a customer," Schott said. "That was the start of a pretty good book in my life."

That entrepreneurial spirit took root at WashU, in spite of a few academic rough spots. He was a star student in high school, but in college, "I realized I was in a whole different level of competition," he said. "I learned that rather quickly."

Former engineering professor Lloyd Brown called him out for skipping a class. Schott realized he wasn't studying hard enough when he noticed colleagues had staked out regular spots at Olin Library. He struggled so thoroughly with one class that he walked into Professor Marcel Muller's office prepared to drop it.

"He sat me down and said, 'Promise me something: Will you work your tail off in this class and give me everything you've got?' I said yes, and he said, 'Don't drop the class,'" Schott said. "I got a C. I really appreciate him saying that to me."

That commitment — to work your tail off — is the crux of Schott's message for those who follow him at WashU. "There's enough mediocrity in life," he said. "Anything you do, do it with 100 percent commitment."

That includes working while attending college. Get internships, apprenticeships, engineering co-op positions — anything that can give you a leg up.

"I get a lot of resumes," Schott said. "When we hire students out of school, we're looking for that demonstrated practical experience."

Finally, don't forget that childlike joy in the craft and science of engineering. Schott says he wishes math teachers would go beyond y=x2 when teaching young students about parabolas. He said he wants teachers to give their students a reason to care about the math and to know why their favorite shows on DirecTV depend on the shape of the parabola.

For Schott, his love of math grew out of an understanding of its practical application in the world around him.

The School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis focuses intellectual efforts through a new convergence paradigm and builds on strengths, particularly as applied to medicine and health, energy and environment, entrepreneurship and security. With 88 tenured/tenure-track and 40 additional full-time faculty, 1,300 undergraduate students, more than 900 graduate students and more than 23,000 alumni, we are working to leverage our partnerships with academic and industry partners — across disciplines and across the world — to contribute to solving the greatest global challenges of the 21st century.