UC grad’s innovative design creates van life 2.0

Form and function collide in Freedom Fans’ camper conversions

A boundless spirit of adventure has long beckoned Stephen Recktenwald.

Mock-up of Freedom Fans' product

Mock-up of Freedom Fans' product. Photo/Stephen Recktenwald

“I’ve always loved road trips and spending time in nature,” he says.

One of his wildest adventures: buying an old ambulance and converting it into a travel-worthy camper van.

Recktenwald’s profound appreciation for the great outdoors and penchant for do-it-yourself work led him to contemplate whether the van life movement, where people transform vans into permanent dwellings, could be elevated to new heights. As enjoyable as van life was, Recktenwald’s inquisitive mind, honed by a master’s degree from the University of Cincinnati’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, propelled him to further improve this unconventional lifestyle.

Fueled by his passion for innovation and desire to redefine the limits of nomadic living, Recktenwald’s entrepreneurial spirit gave birth to Freedom Fans. Recktenwald’s startup aims to “enable adventurers to embrace the freedom of travel while ensuring [that] comfort remains paramount.” The company’s first product is a skylight for camper vans that integrates a fan along its periphery, masterfully combining both goals to embody the perfect symbiosis of luxury and freedom.

Freedom Fans starts moving

Two factors drive Freedom Fans forward: Recktenwald’s design prowess and the guidance he received from the 1819 Innovation Hub's Venture Lab and UC's Center for Entrepreneurship. Innovation takes an extensive skill set, but an entirely different one is required to successfully market and manufacture a new product.

“The Venture Lab provides expert content, mentorship, funding and physical coworking space for UC founders with scalable venture ideas,” Josie Dalton, associate director for UC’s Center for Entrepreneurship, says. “We work to infuse founders with the resources and support to develop and launch companies that create economic impact for the Greater Cincinnati region and beyond.”

Freedom Fans logo features a road stretching off in the distance surrounded by evergreens and the company name with a logo of interlocking squares.

Freedom Fans logo. Photo/Freedom Fans

Freedom Fans’ experience with the Venture Lab revolved around the Venture Lab NEXT Accelerator and the New Venture Championship. Venture Lab programs offer comprehensive agendas up to three months in length that break down ways for students to navigate the world of startups. Through a curated mentorship network, collaborative peer-to-peer learning and guest speakers, participants gain insights into the art of successfully launching and managing a startup venture.

The second initiative, the Center for Entrepreneurship's New Venture Championship, is a high-stakes pitch competition where cohorts showcase their innovative startup ideas before a panel of industry expert judges for a chance to win part of a prize pool of up to $20,000.

Recktenwald graduated from the Venture Lab NEXT Accelerator with newfound knowledge of running a business plus $5,000 in seed funding. The 2023 New Venture Championship awarded Freedom Fans an additional $10,000, and Recktenwald left UC’s Venture Lab confident in his ability to level up the business.

[The Venture Lab] was an invaluable experience ... I'd highly recommend it to any UC student with a startup idea.

Stephen Recktenwald, Founder, Freedom Fans

The Venture Lab was, in Recktenwald’s opinion, “an invaluable experience” that he’d “highly recommend to any UC student with a startup idea.” Some of his favorite moments in the Venture Lab were seminars with experienced entrepreneurs, weekly one-on-ones with similarly minded founders and the feeling that all questions were welcome.

The skylight’s the limit

Stephen Recktenwald headshot

Stephen Recktenwald. Photo/Stephen Recktenwald

Freedom Fans is currently riding a wave of momentum, having secured both a provisional patent and the company’s first sale to a company in Colorado. Recktenwald feels confident that the tight-knit van life community will be as supportive of his company’s skylight-fan combo as UC’s 1819 Innovation Hub was.

There’s more coming down the road for Freedom Fans, with Recktenwald having plenty of ideas to improve the essence of modern living for recreational vehicles (RVs), boats and household items. Freedom Fans just sent its inaugural product to market, with a relentless pursuit of van life innovations and designs on the way.

“We are continuing to grow and gain more traction, which has been fun to watch,” Recktenwald says. “I’m excited to see what the future holds.”

Featured image at top: Recktenwald's converted ambulance during a road trip. Photo/Stephen Recktenwald

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