Alumni Spotlights

Thomas Pleban, ’72: From Retirement to Entrepreneurship

October 10, 2017 by Lisa M. McMahon, MA'09

When Thomas Pleban, ’72, retired in 2011 after a long and successful career in business—he was a purchasing agent for Bell Aerospace and a contract administrator for Comtech Research before joining Calspan Corp., where he moved up the management chain and ultimately bought the Buffalo, N.Y., operations with two of his colleagues—he planned to work on his golf game and spend time with his grandchildren.

“I like to say I felt like I was in the eye of the storm sufficiently long enough,” he says. “Up to that point in time, my family was number one, my career was number two, and I thought I could get along without my career. So I sold, and for all intents and purposes, I retired.”

But, as is often the case, life had other plans.

In 2012, a colleague from Calspan called Tom to discuss the marketing of a new energy storage technology that was being developed by a professor at the India Institute of Science. The device, called a hybrid ultracapacitor, could use any power source, including solar, to charge, and, when used in combination with a battery, would extend its life and efficiency. For people in India, where an estimated 480 million have no access to electrical power, a device like this would be life-changing.

This wasn’t the first time since his retirement that Tom had been asked to help with a business initiative, but he always declined, because he didn’t want to “get back into the eye of the storm,” he says. However, because this technology was unique, and because it would significantly benefit people who are in great need, Tom decided he wanted to become involved.

And so Mesha, Inc., was formed. The name, which is Sanskrit for ram, was chosen to reflect the qualities of those born under the zodiac sign of Aries: zeal, exuberance, and an ability to make things happen. 

Over the last five years, much has happened with Mesha. The technology has gone from the lab to the factory, and the company registered its first sales last year. The product line, which started with lanterns and cell phone chargers, has expanded to street lamps, solar sewing machines, and microgrids that can power a small house. There are now 25 employees in India and four in the United States. Tom and his team are working with distributors to make the product available throughout the sub-Saharan region, and the company holds patents in India, the U.S., South Korea, Brazil, China, the European Union, and South Africa. 

While making a profit is always a factor in any business, Tom notes that ensuring that the device remains affordably priced is a priority.  

“Certainly, we want the company to do well,” he said, “but we want to do it in such a way that it’s beneficial to those who are less fortunate than those of us who have been involved in the project for the last five years.

“I think we’ve been successful already,” he continued. “I think we’ve accomplished something significant and we’re on the road to good stuff. Our goal now is to hire a management team that will continue what we started; capable individuals who can take this technology further than we have been able to. We want to make sure that the technology continues and is able to provide the benefits to people who have significantly less than we do.”

Tom is not in the “eye of the storm” anymore, but his role in Mesha does require him to travel to India at times. However, he notes that he can work on his own terms, which leaves him the time he wants to golf, babysit, and travel with his growing family.

“Life’s worked out,” he smiles. “I can’t complain.”