It’s hard to pin a title on Ben Feltner. Sure, he’s the co-founder and COO of BeeHex, a NASA spin-off company that’s modernizing food preparation with 3D-printing and robotics. But he’s also a former high-level baseball player, attorney and prankster. The Texas native has found a new home in Ohio, and is working with BeeHex in Columbus to personalize food with tech innovations. We talked to Feltner about being drafted by multiple Major League Baseball teams, getting a product on the late-night TV circuit and how his diverse past has influenced his entrepreneurial career.
What was your childhood like?
I was born near Houston, Texas in a little town called Sealy. My dad owned a family stone business that failed when I was maybe 3 years old. We moved up to Bloomington, Indiana and he started another business that failed. When I was 7 or 8, we moved to Austin, where he started another stone business, and he’s owned it ever since. I grew up really looking up to him, and my excitement for business and entrepreneurship comes from him.
But outside of working with my dad, I was really into sports, and I played baseball and football and ran track. Baseball is such a big deal in Texas, and I was just obsessed. I was really busy between baseball and always working with my dad. I remember he would wake me up at 5 a.m. on the weekends and I’d go help him. It carried all the way through college, and I’ve always been an early riser.
How far did your baseball career take you?
I played all the time and loved it as a kid and did really well. But when I got to high school, I was more successful in track and I didn’t get along with my baseball coach at all. I loved it, but I didn’t really get much of an opportunity. So, after I left high school, I was still super motivated to play in college. I was driving all over Texas trying out at different schools. Finally, I got on at Temple and found some success. In my second year I got drafted by the Cubs and by then it just felt like, “Yeah, I should be getting drafted.”
The next season, I had letters from two teams. I remember getting in the car with my dad and after all those games as a kid, he was like, “Can you believe it?” I got a scholarship to Texas A&M and went to work on my game. Early on, I had the record for stolen bases, and everything was going great. I thought, “I’m really going to get drafted high this year.” But I decided to stay in college for one more year and I ended up hurting my arm. I needed surgery and got interested in becoming a lawyer, so my path changed.
What were some of your first jobs?
When I was 16, I was a lifeguard because it seemed like all the baseball players were lifeguards in the summer and I was a swimmer, so it was natural. But I started doing some random stuff, too. I tried to start a lawn-mowing business in the summer, but then I had to stop for school. Between undergrad and law school, I worked at this place in Malibu valet parking cars. I was driving Ferraris and talking to these rich people. I would send my family pictures of the great food and the cars and the waves crashing. It was the coolest first-job-out-of-school gig.
Were you always entrepreneurial?
I’ve always come up with schemes. I got in so much trouble doing little pranks as a kid. We would unscrew a light bulb at a neighbor’s house, put it on their doormat and ring the bell so they had to go find which bulb was missing. It wasn’t until law school that I started having business ideas. Once I started to learn about business, I thought, “Oh man, we’re sitting here scheming.” It used to be, “Let’s ring someone’s doorbell and run,” but now it’s like, “how can we make an impact?” And suddenly we’re working on something in an apartment.
Your entrepreneurial career started with a bang. How did the Free Flexor come together?
We had this idea for a flexing dumbbell, the Free Flexor, to do forearm exercises during baseball. We thought we could sell it to universities and baseball players, so we made some prototypes by filling up tennis balls with sand and gluing a spring in between. We were like, “Yeah, it works the way we were thinking,” and I created a plan to make it a real product. Eventually, we got our families and friends to invest and we added whatever we could. When we had enough money to manufacture some, we shot this commercial that we thought was hilarious. We put it on YouTube and there was no response at all.
Then, a few weeks later, we got this call from Jay Leno’s stage manager. He said, “You guys own this?” and asked if he could put it on TV that night. Later, I was driving home from law school and I started getting these calls from people who recognized it. It wound up on so many different shows — I think Jimmy Kimmel’s was probably the best — and we ended up with a little licensing deal with a company in New York City.
How did you find yourself co-founding BeeHex?
After law school, I went into litigation and really liked my job. I was working with a lot of startups and they were always fascinated by the Free Flexor, so I had that story they could relate to. I met Anjan, my co-founder at BeeHex, and after his initial consultation with our firm, I said, “I’m definitely interested in this idea.” After talking to him, I thought, “I should just do this for free and see how I can get involved,” because I thought the story was really interesting and really liked him and I thought it could make a big impact. So, I started doing all of it for free and pretty soon we were going to South by Southwest. We had the best time and we decided to start raising money and finding the right application for the technology and we just had this feeling that the BeeHex technology was going to work.
What’s it been like to watch the company grow?
It’s a roller coaster. One day, everything is looking right, and we have customers that are big industry players wanting to do something with us and we can really see the future. Then we have other days where something goes wrong or we lose a potential sale and it’s devastating. But it’s so fun and I’m learning so much and seeing it evolve has been great. Every day I seem to look back and think, “I wish I would have known that six months ago.” But all you can do is make the best judgment you can in the moment, and it is always changing. Sometimes it keeps you up at night, but at the same time it’s invigorating. Thinking about having a normal job is pretty bizarre now.
What makes Columbus the right home for the company?
For BeeHex, 70 percent of robotics or automation products come out of the Midwest and there’s a big concentration in Ohio and Columbus, so being around that helps a lot. And I think it’s a better spot for manufacturing and that sort of mentality than the West Coast. It’s a great time to be here, and as it keeps growing, it’s going to be great for tech companies and it’s going to draw a lot of people in. It’s been cool to watch.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
I think the biggest thing is finding a problem out there and coming up with an elegant solution. It could be as simple as, “There is no pressed-juice shop in this area. I’ll build that one and then make something unique about it.” It could be a very large scale. If you have that idea, it doesn’t really matter how much experience you have.