Archive for ‘Stories’ Category

 

Entrepreneur invests in the region for future business growth

Friday, March 1st, 2019

AnnDee Nimmer, CEO of RoomTagz™, draws inspiration from her surroundings. As an entrepreneur, she has committed to future growth of her company and her community with the purchase of a 1700-square foot building just outside downtown Rockton.

“In this beautiful setting, just a stone’s throw from the Rock River, I can envision most of my phone calls and employee strategizing sessions being held outside,” AnnDee shared.

In her previous career as a teacher, AnnDee observed that a lack of clear and consistent signage was leading to confusion and wasted time in school hallways. Her company’s signature invention, RoomTagz™, is an innovative solution to wayfinding in schools. Early in her entrepreneurial journey, AnnDee took advantage of local small business development resources. Thus far, she’s competed in two of NIU EIGERlab’s FastPitch Competitions and was one of the top winners in 2018. She has worked with representatives from both NIU EIGERlab’s Center for Product Development and the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) who assist entrepreneurs and small businesses with both the startup and expansion essentials.

The culmination of these meetings has resulted in AnnDee being able to share her ideas in a cohesive manner and put together an action plan for the development of her business.

“The SBDC really emphasizes the importance of customer feedback,” she said. “With the ability to connect with hundreds of my current customers, that was an easy task, and the results were enlightening. I was also referred to a Bridgeway, a company that assists businesses with a variety of tasks including fulfillment, which allowed me more time to manage the business.”

Sustainability during business development is key to future success. With the support of NIU EIGERlab, SBDC and others, AnnDee was able to refine her profit margins to improve the sustainability of the company. She was also introduced to local lenders whose goals are to assist new or expanding small businesses.

AnnDee first competed in the FastPitch Competition in 2013 and wasn’t satisfied with her performance. She challenged herself to improve by attending the training classes and put in additional practice on the side.

“I feel that the biggest difference between competing in 2013, and winning third place five years later, was having some experience under my belt which gave me more confidence. I’ve been quite fortunate that the demand for my product has doubled year after year, with an unprecedented 60-65% growth curve. These results prove that I’m on the right track, and felt sure I had a chance at one of the prizes. I’ve already recommended FastPitch to others. I’m thankful for all of the entrepreneurial support and opportunities that are available in our community,” shared AnnDee.

The possibilities
The purchase of her new building will make an impact on AnnDee’s ability to hire key individuals to assist with expansion and move forward with new product lines that she’s envisioned.

“When you’re a solopreneur wearing all of the hats, there is little time for executing next steps or creative thinking. I will finally be able to work on my business versus always working in my business,” shared AnnDee. Once the building is fully renovated, her plans include earning additional revenues by renting the space out for meetings, and other entrepreneurial-based activities, which will further enhance Rockton’s entrepreneurial culture.

“I have an endless flow of ideas and love bouncing them off of customers and partners. My business is all about creating a more welcoming, positive and safer school environment,” said AnnDee. As she adds staff, she will be able to grow the business strategically and improve marketing efforts.

From Architect to Fashion Design Diva

Friday, February 1st, 2019

Annie Mohaupt, the owner of Mohop, a made-to-order custom shoe, and accessory company, never imagined while she was studying architecture that she’d own a fashion enterprise. Her fashion-forward offerings are both unique and ingenious, which ties in with her background and field of study.

In 2005, Annie launched Mohop and was a solopreneur until she partnered with Justin Walker in 2012. Justin manages Mohop’s production operations along with assorted other responsibilities. Mohop’s dynamic duo have developed multiple collections of footwear, fashion accessories, and pet accessories, generating over $1.5 million in revenue over the past decade. They’ve recently invested in the community by purchasing a 10,000 square foot manufacturing facility in Rockford.

When you visit Mohop.com, you’ll instantly recognize many of the endless magazines and entities listed which include interviews with Annie or highlight Mohop’s fashionable products. Interestingly enough, this list of magazines does not include “Architectural Digest” or any similar publications. Although, Annie shared, “Many of the materials and processes affiliated with what I learned in school related to interior installations are applicable to creating my custom shoes, and other products.”

The Switch
After toiling in the architectural field for seven years, she traded the projects and working environment for something more in line with her passions — working with her hands and creating her own products.

“The footbeds of the shoes are 3D carved on CNC machines from sustainably-sourced American hardwoods and topped with cushioning EVA (a cushioning material very common to footwear),” Annie shared. “The custom uppers of the shoes are laser-cut, which are then glued and/or nailed to the sole, creating a completely custom shoe within a couple of hours.” For a visually appealing demonstration of this process, see their Kickstarter video link located on Mohop’s website.

Her initial experience selling at a craft fair was at first, fantastic when she sold out of product in a short period of time.  Unfortunately, all of her newly found customers called the following week to complain that the shoes had fallen apart. In her initial creations, she was concentrating on comfort versus durability. With her next iteration, it took one year, and test-walking the shoes 100 miles, to be sure she’d tackled both of the key features; comfort and durability.

Today, Mohop offers a wide variety of women’s shoes, purses, accessories, and dog collars. In special circumstances, Mohop’s team can even accommodate two different size feet, two different size sole heights, etc.

One vastly unique design aspect, with certain types of Mohop’s shoes, is the variety of choices offered. Customers can select the color of the footbed, heel, interchangeable colored ribbons and sari ties that totally change the look. To even further expand the fashionable result, she features illustrations on the “How to Tie” portion of the website, which puts an additional spin on the custom look. The sari ties are made from recycled materials, which Annie sources from a nonprofit organization in India that support fair-trade wages for women. Her unique shoes have even been featured on the Discovery Network/Science Channel show, “How It’s Made!”

The future is bright for Mohop with Annie, a self-taught manufacturer at the helm. A key element of the company’s success is their ability to be flexible and change. They pay attention to trends and adapt if necessary. All of their processes are designed around flexibility. For example, they mainly use riveting versus sewing since people with sewing expertise are difficult to find. This allows the team to be able to assemble their shoes and accessories during downtime at tradeshows, craft shows or at an Airbnb while traveling, but they are keeping it simple for another reason.

“We envision women, perhaps stay-at-home moms, to be able to assemble our products in their homes and earn a decent part-time wage,” Annie explained.  “We mainly source all of our raw materials from suppliers in the U.S. and would prefer to employ U.S. workers–as opposed to how most shoes are manufactured. We now design the products, so assembly requires very little training.”

Lessons Learned
“I have a lot more humility than I did in year one. When I started, I was really confident. I have large goals and have the desire to grow a large company, but I’ve learned that it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Annie stated. “We are embracing being proactive versus in the beginning when I was running the company reactively. The tide is turning—we are preparing for the future.”

To learn more about Mohop’s fashionable merchandise, visit their website, www.Mohop.com. To learn more regarding the services and programming offered to assist entrepreneurs, visit www.EIGERlab.org or phone 815.753.2192.

If patients won’t adapt, modernize the tool: FitsBrush!

Tuesday, January 1st, 2019

After years of trying to assist her patients with preventive dental care, Rachael Lolling, a dental hygienist by day and entrepreneur by night, set out to revolutionize the toothbrush. This age-old dental hygiene tool was due for an update and Rachael took on the challenge to provide consumers with a better tool to fight dental decay and periodontal disease. FitsBrush is the only toothbrush with a bendable and flexible neck and has double the average number of bristles. Her patent-pending product launched in October 2017.

Rachael’s first steps were studying and measuring more than 500 models of people’s teeth she had collected over the years. In designing her new toothbrush, she had several important goals in mind. First the angle of the bristles. To brush most effectively, the bristles have to be at a 45-degree angle. Secondly, the size of the brush head needed to be increased to clean more than one-to-two teeth with each stroke and covers more surface area. Next, she made the bristles multiple heights in a concave pattern that will conform to convex teeth shape to efficiently clean the tooth’s biting surface, the exterior surface, and below the gum line all in one position. Her final innovation is what makes FitsBrush so unique: its side-to-side bend and ideal flex. This allows the toothbrush to clean behind the molars and around the canine teeth and also assists people who are hard, aggressive brushers—warning them to not push so hard.

After perfecting the design, Rachael set out to find a manufacturer but didn’t have to look farther than Eau Claire, Wisconsin. After the Tess Oral Health president listened to her compassionate presentation, he was eager to support her efforts. FitsBrush’s unique movement component makes it a manufacturing challenge.  Rachael declined hundreds of samples until the product was perfect.

“I wish I would have known about NIU EIGERlab’s Center for Product Development (C4PD) before starting the invention process,” said Rachael. ”Now, when I share my entrepreneurial journey, I inform the audience that there’s a local entity that will make their lives easier, especially in the early stages.

Fast forward to FastPitch
For Rachael, public speaking doesn’t come naturally. “I watched many TEDx Talks on a variety of topics, before even contemplating signing up to compete in FastPitch. I was incredibly nervous at the competition, but I think when you’re passionate about something, somehow that overrides your nervousness. Everyone was so supportive and encouraging that it resulted in a great experience,” shared Rachael.

Next Steps
Rachael plans to invent two similar products—one for the younger generation and a second for the older generation. Now that she’s aware of the C4PD and programming NIU EIGERlab has to offer, she plans to take full advantage. “My future inventions will be much easier! I now have a team in place, and I’m fully aware of all of the resources our community offers,” shared Rachael. “I’m also thankful for events such as NIU EIGERlab’s monthly Innovation Tuesday Meetups. I’m able to connect with like-minded people, and I feel as if I’m going to entrepreneurial college–learning or enhancing my knowledge of a new topic at each Meetup.”

Philanthropic Efforts
The “Fits” in FitsBrush has two meanings. It “fits” in your mouth and also stands for “Funding In The Schools.” Rachael helps schools raise money through the FITS Dental Fund.

“I’m passionate about working in the schools to educate children on not only the importance of dental hygiene and good nutrition but also how easy it is to prevent the world’s most chronic disease, tooth decay, with the proper tools and instructions,” Rachael said. “In a perfect world, we’d have dental clinics in the schools. I would love to see schools include dental hygiene education in the curriculum. The FITS Dental Fund proceeds assist school children with dental treatment they could otherwise not afford.”

To check out the FitsBrush and the FITS Dental Fund, visit www.fitsbrush.com.

To learn more about the C4PD and programming NIU EIGERlab offers, visit www.EIGERlab.org or phone 815.753.2192.

Grant View Distillery + Bear Grains = Exciting new collaborative venture

Saturday, December 1st, 2018

Photo credit: Pritz Photography

After years in the airline industry, Tim and Addie Ford are ready to keep their feet on the ground. Inspired by a business trip to Kentucky, they decided to return to Addie’s hometown to establish Grant View Distillery, the first legal distillery in Rockford since Prohibition.

Addie won the 2018 FastPitch “Spirit of Entrepreneurship” pitching the distillery’s first release, 40 Winks Whiskey. She felt the award was quite fitting for someone in the spirits industry. The Fords’ focus is to create something distinct with local flavors and a land-to-lips experience.

The Fords purchased a 22-acre specialty crop farm, Grant View Heights, to create a unique agri-business and tourist destination for Rockford. They plan to open a Tasting Room in late 2019. To assist with the production and flavorings of their craft spirits, they’ll grow 50+ agricultural products on their property to flavor their offerings including Brandy, Rum, Bourbon, Whiskey and Vodka. The highest point of their property overlooks the grounds once known as Camp Grant, hence their name was born, Grant View Distillery. 

Tim, an avid researcher, found an article linking the Graham-Ginestra House to Graham Bros. Distillery (1876-1919). After touring the home, they were delighted to discover distillery items still on display including whiskey barrels filled with the Graham Bros. product. Armed with this historical information, their mission was not only to create unique, quality craft spirits from crops grown on their land but also to recreate the Graham Bros.’ sour mash Bourbon, Whiskey and Rye recipes that have not been produced or distilled in over 100 years.

Finding the essential base products would be no small feat because the grain of yesteryear is not the grain grown on the majority of farms today. They began the hunt for the perfect grain farmer and social media helped guide them to John Gustafson, a third-generation farmer who lives just a stone’s throw from their property.

“Farming plays a vital role in distilling” Addie explained, “Since John was already growing heritage grains and grains found in this area 100 years ago, it was a perfect fit.” The outcome of connecting the dots will result in a new experience for Rockford residents and a great attraction for others to visit the region.

John is an innovator integrating old-school farming with modern equipment. He and his family’s goals are to leave the land in better shape than when they started. This goal has paid off. Gustafson Farms, the producer of Bear Grains, is the only supplier of this unique product in the Midwest. With the current trends–desiring to purchase local and support sellers within your region, which results in the freshest product available–his crops have been in high demand. His niche product fills the needs of quality bakers, distillers, etc., who are interested in producing high-quality, GMO-free, uniquely tasting products.

John and the Fords regularly attend NIU EIGERlab’s Innovation Tuesday Meetups and have participated in the FastPitch Competition. “It’s ideal that NIU EIGERlab offers entrepreneurs the chance to compete annually to test market their products at FastPitch, in addition to recruiting talented speakers 10 times a year to assist with business development. The ability to network at these events, in addition to the educational aspect is phenomenal,” shared John.  Addie added, “Being part of the 2018 FastPitch Competition was an amazing experience. We were encouraged and given valuable feedback from experts which allowed us to hone our speaking skills and create a personalized voice for our company & product.  We are proud to have won the Spirit of Entrepreneurship award for our very own ‘Spirit of Rockford’.”

Collaboration is key. “We assist each other with the positive outcome of being better businesses, in addition to offering something special for our hometown,” Addie shared. Both agree that partnering adds value to their businesses versus competing.

Visit Grant View’s Distillery’s website their upcoming events. Visit Gustafson Farm’s Facebook page to learn more of their operations.

NIU EIGERlab’s FastPitch Competition draws passionate presenters

Thursday, November 1st, 2018

An innovative new toothbrush. Customized, locally-manufactured footwear. Colorful signage to help students and visitors find their way around schools. These were the top winners in NIU EIGERlab’s 12th annual FastPitch.

Entrepreneurs from around the region gathered at NIU-Rockford on October 3 to showcase their products and share their projections before a panel of judges similar to ABC’s “Shark Tank.” From the 38 eager presenters who so passionately shared their pitches, cash prizes totaling $7,500 dollars along with additional services were awarded to an outstanding group of five entrepreneurs. FastPitch has experienced an impressive run with over 500 presenters sharing their “ideas on a napkin,” products, services, apps, etc. This year’s winners, with their variety of products and services, were truly exceptional!

Rachel Lolling was recruited at a local Facebook event for this year’s event. She overcame her initial hesitation and competed, taking home the $5,000 first prize for her FitsBrush toothbrush. With 20 years of experience in the dental field, she is on a mission to ensure that people are brushing correctly and practicing proper oral hygiene. When she’s not working at her fulltime position in the Rockford Public Schools system, she’s in one of the nine local stores which carry her toothbrush, educating people on different products, proper brushing & flossing techniques, disease awareness, and answering any questions people may have on dental treatment and procedures. FitsBrush is currently sold to dental offices, online, in local stores, and can also be used as a fundraiser for schools, clubs, and organizations to promote good oral hygiene.

Annie Mohaupt took second place with Mohop, an on-demand, custom footwear designer and maker. Mohop combines cutting-edge digital fabrication with traditional artisanal techniques to make beautiful, comfortable shoes that reflect your style. Good news for the region: the Mohaputs have just purchased a 10,000 square foot building in Rockford to manufacture Mohop products! We welcome these artistic entrepreneurs, along with their distinctive line of products.

AnnDee Nimmer took third place with her product, RoomTagz. RoomTagz visually enhances schools throughout the nation and Canada, helping visitors, parents and first responders easily navigate school hallways. As a former teacher, she understands the importance of signage that is easily changed to assist with employee updates and creates a welcoming and safe environment.

Entrepreneur Addie Ford took home the Dale Falconer Spirit of Entrepreneurship award for her pitch on the Grant View Distillery. She won a six-month complimentary coworking membership at NIU EIGERlab’s coworking space at NIU-Rockford with her distillery, where she will have access to counseling and other services. Grant View Distillery is set on 22 acres complete with a craft size vineyard and orchard, and it’s the first distillery in the Rockford area since Prohibition. Grant View, which includes a tasting room, is slated to open in 2019. It was fitting that Addie won this Spirit award as her business is spirits!

Joseph Scheidt, a senior at the University of Chicago, was named best student innovator for Avior Analytics. His online tool assists with keeping both patients and physical therapists actively engaged long-term in the physical rehabilitation process. He was injured during his stint in college sports, so he spoke from experience when he shared that many people do not follow through with their therapy, which is often to the detriment of the patient.

FastPitch’s 2017 winner, Dr. Trevor Gibbs of Naperville, gave the event’s keynote address. His product, Anestand, which provides a space for anesthesiologists’ tools in the operating room, was created with the assistance of NIU EIGERlab’s Center for Product Development. Anestand is set to hit the marketplace this year. He delivered a thought-provoking keynote speech injected with humor and shared his enthusiasm from being energized by all of the talented, passion-filled FastPitch presenters.  

For the complete list of 2018 presenters’ information including links to their websites, visit www.eigerlab.org/fastpitch.

For more information on what NIU EIGERlab offers entrepreneurs and existing businesses in the region, visit our website or contact Sherry Pritz Enderle at (815) 753-2192.

Pet Loader: Innovation Helps Owners Take their Pets Along

Monday, October 1st, 2018

Photo credit: Baker Studios

When Evon and Bob Whalen’s dog Casey injured her leg, it became difficult for her to jump into the Whalens’ car. As Bob started looking for tools to help the 115-pound dog into the car, he found nothing suitable or transportable. With nothing on the market to solve their problem, the Whalens invented their own transportation solution — the Pet Loader

Bob’s idea was to assist his four-legged friend–with a horizontal body–into vehicles designed for our vertical bodies safely versus jumping down, risking a painful ACL tear. His passion for helping his dog and recognizing that other pet owners were probably facing the same problem motivated him to begin working with NIU EIGERlab 14 years ago to make his idea a reality. NIU’s Center for Product Development has assisted with the commercialization of Pet Loader’s entire product line—a solid partner supporting the Whalen’s as they’ve discovered new markets and applications.

Unexpected Clients
Today, the Whalens run a highly successful business that is well-known around the world, and to a host of professions, they initially didn’t consider as clients. For instance, today’s list includes your average dog owner, the Great Dane Society of Baltimore, both the United States’ DEA and Homeland Security entities and the NY Bomb Squad.

When a dog completes his training to assist in a variety of services such as working with a bomb squad, K-9 patrol, etc. it entails a hefty financial investment. By paying less than 1% of the total training costs to procure a Pet Loader, entities such as the NY Bomb Squad can lengthen a dog’s years of service by two-to-four years by eliminating the need to jump in and out of vehicles. For service dogs, jumping injuries are cumulative and crippling.

Veterinarians, dog groomers, dog trainers, and their customers comprise a significant portion of Pet Loader’s sales. The majority of those who purchase a Pet Loader realize the ease of use and compact nature, and how it meets the needs of both the pet and the pet owner. As for veterinarians, and dog groomers, it makes the job of handling larger dogs much easier. With its lower angle of ascent/decent and greater traction, it allows dogs to feel more confident transitioning from one surface to another.

Pet Loaders are shipped to customers in the USA and Canada, places where the Pet Loader is used by owners of large dogs in extreme temperatures. Internationally, the company is experiencing an 8-10% growth in sales, year over year to clients in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.

Proud to Share
The Pet Loader is made completely in the USA, and Evon and Bob are proud to share that except for two small parts, their entire product supply chain is located within 60 miles of Rockford. Pet Loader has an impressive track record. A dog will not wear out their Pet Loader–shipping damage or improper use of the product are the only problems they’ve experienced to date. Quality-driven manufacturing, coupled with precise quality control, has resulted in a long-standing product with only a small percentage of returns.

“The stories shared by our customers are individual and heartwarming. They all point to the joy of having their best four-legged, and occasionally three-legged, pets on the road with them again. Going to places unknown and ice cream cones yet to be consumed,” shared Bob.

“Of all of the Pet Loader related stories, those that are the most poignant, are from women who are recently widowed,” shared Bob. “When their husbands pass, a percentage of women assume they’ll no longer be able to assist their large dogs with entering and exiting vehicles safely, thus eliminating trips to the dog park, groomers, and vet’s office. It’s been rewarding assisting female dog owners with keeping their four-legged friends—especially after they’ve already experienced such a loss.”

From the Nation’s National Parks to Scenic Waterways
Three of the Whalen’s newest markets are allowing semi-drivers and RV owners to bring their dogs along on the road, and boat owners to easily assist the dogs from transitioning to swimming in their favorite lake, to being onboard and cruising the waterways. To lift a medium-to-large dog into the cab of a semi-truck is quite dangerous to both the person and their pet. The six-step Pet Loader product allows the dog to enter and exit the truck with ease.

Bob’s advice to small business owners just starting out includes reading, The E Myth: Why Most Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It. “Understanding who you are in relation to what your business will be is essential. Be prepared for things you can’t prepare for; have faith, strength, and courage. Lastly, take advantage of connecting with all of the small business development entities, and glean from their experiences and advice,” Bob said.

To learn more about NIU EIGERlab’s programs and services, visit www.EIGERlab.org or phone 815.753.2192.

FastPitch’s “Secret Sauce” | One of the region’s most visible, highly-anticipated business event of the year.

Saturday, September 1st, 2018

It’s similar to ABC’s “Shark Tank,” only our judges are friendlier! Local innovators and entrepreneurs are encouraged to share their products, services, apps or “ideas on a napkin” for a chance to win. Whether you win one of the six generous prizes, all participants “win” by gaining exposure, a valuable business pitching experience and the opportunity to conduct market research at the expo!

Answer the six key questions with passion…share your story.
Don’t attempt to impress FastPitch’s judges with sky-high projections. Be yourself, convey why you feel this product, service, app, etc. will make a difference. That’s part of the “secret sauce” that FastPitch’s trainers will share during the essential and strongly suggested training sessions. “In the past 11 years, we’ve experienced entrepreneurs win with just an ‘idea on a napkin,’ wowing the judges by sharing both impressive marketing materials, and a convincing vision as to why and how they plan to introduce a cool service or utilitarian product to the world,” shared Sherry Pritz Enderle, FastPitch’s event manager.

Without the sponsors, there wouldn’t be a competition!
A large percentage of our sponsors have supported us since the beginning, and we greatly appreciate them all! This year, we’re excited to share First Northern Credit Union is our presenting sponsor! Our signature sponsors include Colorlab Private Label, Growth Dimensions, Midland Bank, Rockford Bank & Trust, Rockford Chamber of Commerce, Savant Capital Management, StateLine Angels, Thinker Ventures, Universal Die Cast, Wipfli and Wood CPAs! For a complete list of our phenomenal sponsors, please visit our FastPitch website page.

Now in its 12th year
FastPitch offers entrepreneurs, inventors, startups, pre-startups, existing business owners and students (high school and college) the opportunity to “pitch” their business idea or innovative business to a panel of esteemed judges from the business and investment community. Winners take home not only cash prizes ($5,000 for the first place finisher!), but exposure to investors, business leaders, media, and potential mentors as well. NIU EIGERlab’s FastPitch will be held Wednesday, October 3 at NIU-Rockford.

2017 FastPitch Competition standouts: Where are they now?
First place winner, Dr. Trevor Gibbs’ Anestand. “We have finished our design and we’re obtaining quotes for the injection molding. We have an FDA consultant working on FDA registration and creating our quality program. We formed a C Corp and have partnered with investors. Anestand should be launched at the start of the new FDA year which is October.”

Third place winner, Elisabeth Stecki’s Travel Sufficient Alcohol Kits. (TSA-Kit). “We continue to promote TSA-Kits at locale events. In April, we participated as a vendor at Chicago’s Chocolate, Wine & Spirits Tasting Expo. We have submitted three utility and design patents for our TSA-Kits and we are in the process of distributing TSA-Kits nationwide.”

Finalist, Levi Johnston’s Acutrack. “Since I competed in the 2017 Fast Pitch Competition, we have started to test our product in Ace Hardware. We are also working with distributors from across the world seeking innovative new products such as Acutrack. We have hired our first employee, and under the ‘Hardware’ Sector, Acutrack was recognized by Red Herring as one of the 2018 Red Herring Top 100 N. America Awards Finalists!”

Finalist, Dapo Kolawole’s Citispoon. “We launched our beta app in December 2017 and launched our app at Techday NY in May 2018-now available in Apple’s App Store.

In addition to the 2017 FastPitch Competition, we pitched at University of Iowa Alumni Venture School winning 2nd place ($2000). We came in first in the Southeast Chamber of Commerce’s Competition, which also included a Media Marketing package. We also pitched at Founders Live Chicago where we received $5000 in Amazon Web Services credits–much needed for our app! Lastly, we pitched at Startup Grind Chicago!”

Mary Ley’s Styr O Tone musical instruments. “Our goal to make musical instruments from recycled plastics won us a $2000 grant from the Ogle County Solid Waste Management Department with the goal of recycling plastics into usable items.

Since last year’s FastPitch, we are in the process of building our own machines to shred, melt, extrude and compress the plastic to create a variety of musical instruments. We will then begin designing and forging molds from recycled aluminum & steel to produce our musical instruments. It’s a brand new concept to the world & with all of us working together on this, we are confident we’ll be doing great things! Our four-member mastermind team is highly experienced, knowledgeable & passionate about this project.

The FastPitch registration deadline is Thursday, Sept. 20. Presentation training sessions will be held September 25th and 27th (5:30 to 7:30 PM). For full FastPitch Competition details, visit the NIU EIGERlab’s website.

Entrepreneurial Persistence Pays Off!

Sunday, July 1st, 2018

Photo credit: Pritz Photography

As a 45-year beauty industry veteran, Adrian Vasquez, co-owner of Totally You Hair Salon, has seen countless fads, styles, and related products come and go. But innovation is always in style. When Adrian joined the ranks of NIU EIGERlab’s FastPitch Competition winners in 2013, he was assured of the viability of his invention, the revolutionary NZ3 hair dryer Smart Nozzle. Since then, he has stayed the course to entrepreneurial success.

Proving the Market

Part of Adrian’s daily routine consists of communicating with his clients, and stakeholders in his business. He has the unique opportunity to use his salon as a test market, and request that both his colleagues and clients do the same.

To complete his market research, he shared his invention with a select group of colleagues and clients, and was elated at the positive feedback. Its unique design assists with drying hair more quickly and smoothly. The hair dryer’s ergonomic design results in less fatigue, which is especially important for those working in the beauty industry.

As an official tester for Loreal, the world’s largest beauty company, esthetician and Salon Centric sales rep, Tammy Eurek shared that she’s totally sold on the NZ3 professional hair dryer with 3-way Smart Nozzle. “I don’t care how many hair dryers they send me to test, there’s nothing comparable to the NZ3 system to dry, style, and straighten my clients hair.”

Entrepreneurial Successes

Five years later, with his design patent in hand, he deems his invention a commercial success! Adrian shared, “It’s been a very long road. With hindsight being 20-20, I believe I would have made some alternate decisions, but for the most part, the vendors I chose to partner with including NIU EIGERlab’s Center for Product Development and the Small Business Development Center were ideal allies.” If down the road, he elects to sell his business, Adrian realizes that the drudgery of the patent process was well worth his time and effort since it will result in a more attractive business opportunity.

Sage Advice

Along the way, he’s always felt like a student on a life-long learning path. When he is not running one of his two businesses, Adrian immersed himself in the entrepreneurial world attending workshops, reading blogs, books—whatever he can glean from other successful entrepreneurs. “I’d highly recommend books on tape, etc. Do the groundwork by learning as much as possible about not only your product, but your competitors product,” shared Adrian.

In 2014 he was accepted to participate at the Invention and New Product Exposition (INPEX)-the world’s largest invention trade show. INPEX provides a forum for inventors to exhibit their inventions and pitch their ideas with companies interested in licensing, marketing and manufacturing their new products. He felt fortunate to be accepted less than one year after participating in the FastPitch Competition. Meeting George Foreman, a key person associated with INPEX, provided inspiration.

Where do millions of people turn to first to complete research or shop? The Internet. “My last bit of advice is to embrace the 800 pound shopping gorilla, Amazon,” exclaimed Adrian. It’s the largest shopping center in the world.

FastPitch countdown: three month out!

Join Adrian and other successful and aspiring entrepreneurs at the 12th annual FastPitch Competition on October 3. NIU EIGERlab is pleased to welcome First Northern Credit Union as a presenting sponsor for 2018. Would you like to associate your company’s name with this exciting event? Call Sherry at 815.753.2192 to discuss sponsorship opportunities.

To learn more about NIU EIGERlab’s other programs and services, visit www.EIGERlab.org or phone 815.753.2192.

Teacher. Problem Solver. Inventor.

Tuesday, May 1st, 2018

As a first grade teacher, AnnDee Nimmer experienced first-hand the need for proper room signage in the school. After constant interruptions by lost students and visitors, she thought “there must be a better way.” When circumstances beyond her control ended her time in the classroom, she took it as a sign to put on her inventor’s hat. She created RoomTagz™, an innovative solution to wayfinding in schools. In 2013, AnnDee participated in NIU EIGERlab’s signature event, FastPitch! The Competition inspired her to perfect her pitch, and compete. She was off to an impressive start, making the group of finalists before she sold her first sign. As a FastPitch competitor, she received valuable training and lots of positive feedback, and she’s never looked back.

Unforeseen Path
“I never thought I’d have another career which I’d embrace as much as teaching. My goal was to create a sign that was highly visible, appealing, easily updatable, which had a consistent look resulting in an enhanced experience for students and visitors. Many of those elements are also vitally important in emergency situations,” said AnnDee.

“In most schools, each teacher creates their own sign resulting in visible clutter, and a treasure hunt for students and visitors. It was similar to driving on a new road with no street signs,” shared AnnDee.

Principals, teachers, PTO members, and other school stakeholders have been enthusiastic about the signage system. “What an amazing transformation and addition to our school. This is an awesome investment for any organization to build positive culture and climate. Thanks again from Clark Elementary School,” shared Jim, Principal of Clark Elementary School in South Beloit, Illinois.

Being a people person herself, AnnDee thought she’d miss teaching. During her entrepreneurial journey, she discovered that through her efforts to enhance school signage, she still has the opportunity to interact with people on a daily basis. But, more importantly, her signage has impacted thousands of people in over 300 schools. She’s elated with the exponential growth, and the effect of changing the school’s climate and culture resulting in everyone feeling more connected and welcome. Danielle, PTO President in Washington, NJ recently shared, “For many of the families, this will be their introduction to our school and there is nothing that we have done that will have a greater impact on our communities than your signs.”

Entrepreneurial Successes & Trepidations
“I couldn’t be happier with my exponential growth,” AnnDee said. “Year One we contracted with only a handful of Midwestern Schools and had $50,000 in sales. Now, five years later, I’m elated to share that RoomTagz™ signage guides people in over 300 schools in 46 states, in addition to three international schools. I’ve been fortunate to experience 30-35% annual growth consistently, which has been both amazing and daunting,” shared AnnDee.

“Growth is a double-edged sword, and being on the cusp of this level of progress requires a number of decisions. Right now, I am inundated working IN my business, instead of ON my business. Streamlining, filling key positions, and partnering with entities such as NIU EIGERlab and the Small Business Development Center will assist me in making key decisions,” said AnnDee.

To her surprise, AnnDee has found that she has all the characteristics of a serial inventor. She has a number of new product ideas in mind and she may present one of her new products at the FastPitch Competition at NIU-Rockford on October 3. Who knows, like other Rockford area inventors who got their start at FastPitch, she may go on to showcase her products on the Home Shopping Network, Good Morning America, and Shark Tank. As she modestly notes, “I haven’t eliminated any of these options from the realm of possibilities.”

To learn more regarding NIU EIGERlab’s programming, services, and the 2018 FastPitch Competition, visit www.EIGERlab.org or phone 815.753.2192.

NIU EIGERlab Expands its Entrepreneurial Reach

Sunday, April 1st, 2018

NIU EIGERlab’s mantra has always been “a rising tide lifts all boats.” 

The unique combination of expertise, programming, services, and community connections offered at NIU EIGERlab helps startups and small businesses navigate the choppy waters of business growth and product development. One of the primary causes of small business failure is the isolation of the entrepreneur. NIU EIGERlab helps ensure that entrepreneurs are embraced and supported through their journey.

In the same vein, NIU EIGERlab works closely with regional partners to assist businesses in accelerating their development. NIU EIGERlab is a longtime partner with area Chambers of Commerce and economic development organizations. The Rockford Chamber’s Small Business Development Center (SBDC) consults with business clients at NIU EIGERlab’s coworking space at NIU-Rockford. Other innovation partners include DeKalb County Incubator, Fox Valley SCORE, Irontek (Beloit), other regional SBDCs, Thinker Ventures (Rockford), and UWW (Whitewater). 

Drawing business to Rockford

NIU EIGERlab’s programs and activities draw entrepreneurs and investors from surrounding states to Rockford. Monthly Innovation Tuesday Meetup programs offer a wide-variety of top-of-mind subjects–bringing together solopreneurs, inventors, students, business owners, and those considering becoming an entrepreneur.

The 12th annual FastPitch Competition will be held October 3, 2018, at NIU-Rockford. Over the years, participants have shared that they valued the opportunity to win cash prizes, hone their pitches, and receive invaluable feedback. The 2017 winner, Dr. Trevor Gibbs invented Anestand, a tray which holds an anesthesiologists supplies is set to launch his product through the C4PD this spring. Gibbs identified a problem and invented a product which solves the problem of assisting anesthesiologists in inducing anesthesia in a hygienic way while keeping the items immediately available at arm’s length.

Both of NIU EIGERlab’s locations offer affordable accommodations for entrepreneurs and small businesses in Rockford and Loves Park. Cubicles and light industrial spaces are options in Loves Park, while cubicles and open coworking spaces are available at our East State Street location. Coworking members enjoy meeting with clients in a professional setting with an atmosphere conducive to doing business versus jangling spoons and other distractions at local coffee shops.

Collaboration is key

NIU EIGERlab urges entrepreneurs to seek opportunities to collaborate and the organization excels at collaboration as well. The Center for Product Development (C4PD) partners with industry leaders to acquire leading-edge equipment to help the C4PD provide leading-edge product development services to clients. Recently, Nota 3D provided a 3D Systems MJP 2500 Plus with the latest in materials that the industry has to offer. 

The C4PD recently held an open house for area manufacturers and technology enthusiasts to take a look at its current technologies and to introduce the area to a new 3D printer from Super 3D Plus that is capable of both ceramics and full color. There is a wide variety of applications including aerospace, dental, ornamental, artistry, and complicated fragile parts not easily produced on the legacy systems. 

Expanding throughout the region

NIU EIGERlab is taking its show on the road. Mike Cobert, director of the C4PD regularly meets with entrepreneurs in Naperville, Schaumburg, Elgin, and DeKalb. “I’m interested in removing any barriers that prevent us from connecting with inventors who need assistance moving their product ideas forward,” shared Mike.

NIU EIGERlab is increasingly familiar and connected throughout the region. This April, the NIU College of Business will replicate the signature FastPitch Competition on the DeKalb campus. Students will pitch their ideas and compete for a variety of prizes. Most importantly, they will receive valuable feedback and mentoring from NIU professors and alumni. NIU EIGERlab’s Sherry Pritz Enderle, longtime manager of FastPitch, is mentoring the students and faculty members as they plan their event.