Grant inventor designs, prototypes and will manufacture Stabil-Float in Western Michigan By Joe Boomgaard | MiBiz jboomgaard@mibiz

.com FREMONT - Witnessing an accident on a boating dock on Hardy Pond sparked Terry Fett's inventive spirit. Four years ago, a person he knew on another boat had to go to shore to use the restroom. When the man put one foot on the floating dock, his weight caused the structure to bob into the water, he lost his balance and pinned his other leg between the boat and the dock, injuring himself in the process. Fett knew there had to be a better way. But the problem was more than just a poorly designed dock. The only dock and restrooms on the impoundment were on the Montcalm County side of the 18-mile-long lake. Fett, the mayor of Grant, wanted to help spur growth along the Newaygo County side, near Sandy Beach. A stabile docking system for boaters might help attract some surrounding businesses to service people —and drive economic development —on his county's portion of the lake. "In solving the park's problems, I started to look at ways a dock is constructed," Fett told MiBiz. "I'm kind of a dreamer. I've got a lot of left brain in me. I've always been very creative that way. I could see things in motion that most people just can't see." Fett dubbed his design Stabil-Float. The "free-balanced, free-floating" invention employs an upside-down float that uses water and a series of chambers for stability. The design is made of easily recyclable aluminum — unlike the expanded polystyrene in most floatation docks — and uses a decking made of untreated, weather-resistant cedar. The docks have wheels and are easily put in and removed for the winter season. Finding a business path But once he had the idea, Fett had to decide what he wanted to do with it. After about six months of working on the idea, he thought he might be able to make a business out of the invention. "Even though I can create things and run small businesses, I knew I was not capable of running this business and that I needed a manager," he said. "I'm going to trust others to help me make the decisions —people who understand the business world better than I do. I could get burned,

and I don't want to lose everything." Fett turned to Al Wilson at the Newaygo County SCORE office for some advice. Wilson helped Fett develop a business plan.
Helping inventors stay local InnovationWorks is a program developed and implemented by The Right Place Inc.with local partners and supported by Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development grant funding. The group encompasses Allegan, Barry, Ionia, Kent, Montcalm, Muskegon, Newaygo and Ottawa counties The program provides an integrated system of resources designed to help people mine for inventions and new technologies, connect companies to ideas and coach individuals on commercialization. The initiative will expand innovation competency in West Michigan resulting in new jobs and increased prosperity for the region. "We’re very keen on helping to create jobs in West Michigan, and InnovationWorks is another key to economic development," said Ann Saliers of The Right Place. "When you look around West Michigan, the big companies that started here and that stay here and put money into the community all started in someone’s basement or garage. We’re trying to foster the companies that will become the next Amways and Perrigos and Gerbers and Steelcases." Saliers said there are hundreds of inventors like Terry Fett in West Michigan, far more people than there are resources to support them.

Fett researched other inventions registered at the U.S. Patent Trade Office, but found that perhaps the handiest research was done using the Google search engine. "You can see everything in the marketplace and sold today," he said. Armed with the research that showed his invention was a unique idea, Andy Lofgren, executive director of the Newaygo County Economic Development Office, recommended Fett to InnovationWorks, a program of The Right Place Inc., to get help in commercializing the idea. Ann Saliers, innovation director of sustainability at The Right Place, joined Lofgren and Wilson as the "core advising team" helping Fett through the next steps in his business.

"It's easy for an inventor to get out over his skis, …to be interrupted from what they should be doing next," Saliers told MiBiz. "We helped coach him through and describe what steps he'd be going through. It helps give (inventors) some realization in just how long the process is." Helping get connected Saliers helped Fett map out a customized process he should take as he planned to start his business. She brought in Bill Small, VP of technical services at The Right Place and regional director of the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center-West to assist Fett with prototyping and in developing the components for Stabil-Float. Small, in turn, connected Fett with Kirk Wyers at the Newaygo County Career Technical Center in Fremont to produce CAD drawings so that an engineer could build the components for the prototype. Small then found an aluminum supplier in Belding. Meanwhile, Fett participated in the first idea translation workshop InnovationWorks helped pilot for Eureka Ranch. "It takes the idea and helps evaluate it from a customer, marketing and product value standpoint," Small told MiBiz. Saliers said the process gives inventors a probability of success, which they can then use to decide whether they should push forward or go back to the drawing board —saving the inventor time and money. The program was piloted through the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, of which MMTCWest is a member. was just beginning to ramp up…and they wanted to use me as a guinea pig to assess the tools they were going to be using in West Michigan," Fett said. Fett's idea scored very well —nearly twice as high as the average idea on its first run — and Small said the information provided by the test helped give Fett confidence in his idea. "What the program did for Terry is it showed him the product was quite far along, but the message needed to sell this item needed some work," Small said. Creativity saves the day After some brief work on his elevator speech, Fett was ready to jump right into the prototype stage. And that's when Fett hit a crossroads —he had to

decide whether or not he wanted to take the financial risk needed to build the prototype because of the size of the docks and the cost involved. "Because of the scale of the product, the size and the price, you don't just prototype every iteration," Small said. "You have to get to the point where you're very confident in the product design. This was a huge milestone for him." Fett and his advisors brainstormed how they could move the project forward at the lowest out-of-pocket cost for Fett, and through some creative deals, they got federal, state and local government funds to help. "If it weren't for Michigan Works! this project would still be in limbo," Fett said. "They brought the money in at the 11th hour through (the NCEDO) office. …I wasn't prepared —I didn't think we'd start till fall, but they said, do it now." Michigan Works! provided funding for an instructor from West Shore Community College to work at the Career Tech Center training young people in various trades all while building Fett's prototype. The funding for the participants was from the Workforce Investment Act, and was part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, which allowed youth age 16 to 24 to participate in summer employment and training. "This was a unique opportunity for Michigan Works! participants to receive training in skills that would make them employable, earn money from a summer job and be part of a unique project," Paul Griffith, executive director of Michigan Works! West Central, told MiBiz. Local project, local training The first working prototypes built by the students were purchased at material cost by Newaygo County for Sandy Beach Park and by the Grant City Commission for Blanche Lake. The governments supported the project because Fett promised to provide local jobs once he got his company up and running and to build the products at the Career Tech Center using the young workers who were part of the training. Michigan Department of Natural Resources grants also went toward the docks. According to Mike Wyman, program director for Michigan Works! West Central, the organization worked with its service provider, Eagle Village, to screen the youth participants interested in learning about welding and assembly, pay them wages for summer employment and contracted with West Shore Community College to pay for the welding instructor, Aaron

Brandon of the Career Tech Center. The participants will also receive a certificate for the skills learned from WSCC. Wyman said Michigan Works! got involved since the entities working on the project were all public or nonprofit and the docks ordered were being sold at cost for public use to local units of government. "The participants learned welding and assembly and were part of developing a new product, with the prototypes used by county and city government for public use," Griffith stated, calling the project a "one-of-akind opportunity." "For the six participants, this has been a great learning experience for them." Fett praised the innovative structuring of the deal, noting that the participants also got some training in running a business and on-the-fly problem solving, not to mention practical work skills. Expanding the market The classes started work on the first dock in mid-summer, and Fett even got 3M to donate a new resin for the chambers of the product. Still, Fett pursued various channels to help find a market for Stabil-Float once his company was up and producing. By their nature, the docks are expensive. They require a great deal of production time and metal to produce, and Fett says they won't be cheap. And part of that is on purpose. In his past careers, Fett said he was in marketing for high-end products. "It's a lot of fun and very easy to sell high-end," he said. "There's no real objection if you sell the price. If your only objection is price, then you don't want the best. "If you put this in front of your house, you have an asset value that could last 50 years. We expect that you would recoup most of the investment in 10 to 15 years due to the rise in the cost of materials. No other dock provides that." But realizing that he might need to have some other group help drive the market for his product, Fett strategically placed his company to do business with the federal government. Fett registered his business as a Historically Under-utilized Business Zone (HUB Zone) and signed up on the federal contracting registry. He's also been in touch with various contacts at the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

He sees an opportunity to do business with the government because his docks are much lighter and contain no harmful materials. He's had to turn away e-mails for orders until he readies for production, but says he's creating the demand for when ready. "There are a lot of hurdles getting people together to do this, to get it assessed, than one realizes in the beginning," Fett said. "My commitment with the Career Tech Center and Michigan Works! is to hire people in this area, to get them the benefits they need and not have to drive to Grand Rapids or move out of the state." Fett said he expects the business to be fully operational within a year, but he has a couple of different choices to make. He can partner with an existing fabricator or seek the funding and start a business of his own. Again, he's relying on his team of advisors for help. "You reach a point where you want to walk away because this is so allconsuming," Fett said. "If it weren't for Al, Kirk and these kids, I'd get so drained. When I need relief, I'm able to lean on them. And it's amazing to have that support group of people." While one working prototype has been built and installed —without issue — at Blanche Lake in Grant, the other prototypes for Sandy Beach will be delivered by next spring. "It was scary," Fett said of putting the first dock in the water. "Four years of convincing people this works and it all comes down to the final second.

On The Web: InnovationWorks: The Right Place Inc.: Michigan Works! West Central: Newaygo County Career Tech Center: Newaygo Co. Economic Dev. Office: Michigan Mfg. Technology Center-West:


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