Martinson’s Mantra - Aim high, help others soar

Students working
Reach for the moon and you’ll land among the stars, the adage claims. John H. Martinson (MS AAE ’71) proves its truth, and he helps entrepreneurs and educators do the same.

The once-aspiring astronaut, whose 6’2” stature proved too tall for astronauts in his day, uses his business skills, financial backing and zeal to nurture young companies. And through his nonprofit Martinson Family Foundation, he supports efforts that equip elementary and secondary teachers to prepare students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Two of those programs are Purdue University-based: INSPIRE — Institute for P-12 Engineering Research and Learning, which helps teachers educate about engineering effectively; and EPICS High, the college-prep version of the Purdue-founded Engineering Projects in Community Service program that involves students in hands-on educational service projects.

Martinson, of New Jersey, graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy, where in 2008 its Association of Graduates named him their 18th Distinguished Graduate. He then got his master’s degree at Purdue.

“Purdue left a lasting impact,” he says. “Astronautics was all about innovative engineering and software advances to achieve major breakthroughs.” He then earned a second master’s degree in business administration at Southern Illinois University, where he is now a Hall of Fame member. His career path began at New Jersey’s American Cyanamid, then Exxon Enterprises. Later, he was a principal at InnoVen Group, an early-stage venture capital firm. In 1986, he formed Edison Venture Fund, a Lawrenceville, N.J., growth-stage investment company of which he is managing partner.

In 1998, he formed the Martinson Family Foundation to foster engineering education. “We fund dedicated programs at major universities to develop curricula, improve instructional methods and provide professional development for K-12 teachers,” he says.

Currently, the foundation supports programs at 15 universities. “We see ourselves as a funding source for nonprofit start-ups,” Martinson says. “We support new programs, see them demonstrate progress and fund them again. We seek innovation, productivity and capital efficiency.” He says EPICS High is an ideal candidate for support. “We are very pleased with the core high school program. Purdue has the reputation, faculty, facilities and national reach.”

William Oakes, EPICS director, says Martinson helped EPICS High get off the ground. The program now includes 50 high schools in 10 states, and another 28 international programs operating with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

“His initial three-year gift to EPICS in 2009 helped seed EPICS High School,” Oakes says. “Funding was critical for training teachers.” Additional Martinson funding is now expanding EPICS High’s online training.

Martinson’s son, John K. Martinson, a Rutgers University graduate, is foundation vice president. “I help monitor grants and visit their operations,” says the younger Martinson.

Education and technology are a family affair. Another son, Jeff Martinson, is a middle school teacher in Hawaii. And Eileen Martinson, married to the elder Martinson, graduated from Philadelphia University, and now serves as vice chair for its board of trustees, as well as chief executive officer of a sizable software company.

A loyal and active Boilermaker, John Martinson aspires to leave a positive legacy. “I want to be known for building pioneering companies. I’m elated when entrepreneurs realize their dreams. And I especially want to be known for giving back to help with the technical education of future entrepreneurs.”