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The Inventivity Pod
Advanced Padding for Helmets and Athletic Shoes
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Auxetic foam is an advanced form of padding for helmets and athletic shoes. The material, which has a honeycomb structure, becomes denser as more pressure is applied. Betsy Condon and her husband Joe have licensed the technology from Florida State University and are hoping for a breakthrough with the military or with shoe companies. Betsy and Joe had extensive experience working in the manufacturing industry but eventually started a company in their garage. “We have certainly ridden the rollercoaster,” says Betsy, “with stomach-dropping moments.”  

 

TRANSCRIPT:

 

Intro:

Inventors and their inventions. Welcome to Radio Cade a podcast from the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention in Gainesville, Florida. The museum is named after James Robert Cade , who invented Gatorade in 1965. My name is Richard Miles. We’ll introduce you to inventors and the things that motivate them, we’ll learn about their personal stories, how their inventions work, and how their ideas get from the laboratory to the marketplace.

Richard Miles:

Padding the resume is a bad thing, but is it? In the case of our guests this morning, Betsy Condon, padding is literally her resume and I’m talking to her about a new kind of foam padding that can be used among other things and football helmets and athletic shows. So welcome to the show. Betsy.

Betsy Condon:

Thank you.

Richard Miles:

So before we get into sort of your story and how you arrived at this, let’s talk about the actual adventure that technology it’s called, auxetic foam padding, A U X E T I C for our listeners who aren’t familiar with that word. I wasn’t familiar with the word. So it’s foam padding. How exactly does it work? How does it differ than the padding? You might see, you know, athletic shoe today or a helmet today?

Betsy Condon:

So auxetic foam has been in laboratories for over 20 years. The problem was that no one could repeat the technology. Why would this be important? Because most foam padding is inadequate in applications where you need especially impact protection, or you need a little bit more advanced materials. And so auxectics have a negative poisons ratio. They actually function very differently than regular foam padding. You actually have had exposure to a uxetic materials and probably not even realized it in Kevlar. Kevlar is a type of auxetic fabric. Auxetics have been in laboratories for over 20 years, but no one could find enough repeatability in their processes to make the technology viable in the marketplace.

Richard Miles:

So Betsy, if I could interrupt you for a second, if I understand correctly, the difference in layman’s terms, is it conventional foam? Like if you put pressure on or impact it expands right? And auxetic, it actually somehow condenses.

Betsy Condon:

Right, it compresses.

Richard Miles:

compresses. Okay.

Betsy Condon:

Yes. Thank you. So with auxetics, the stronger, the load, the more compression that you actually get, and you actually absorb more of the energy. So more compression on auxetic foam makes it more durable, more dense and provides more protection. So it can be applicable in instances where traditional foam would quote, bottom out. If you squeeze a piece of conventional foam, you can feel your fingers at the bottom of it. If you squeeze a piece of auxetic foam, you won’t feel that it takes a lot to bottom out. And in fact, it’s very difficult to bottom out auxetic foam.

Richard Miles:

Right, I saw some of the videos you had where there’s one in particular. I was impressed. Somebody has her hand underneath a big piece of foam, is that your son or a neighbor or something? An d h e’s whacking it with a mallet. Bu t m y first thought was like, how’d you get this guy to do this?

Betsy Condon:

He’s an employee. So he’s covered under employment or he’s covered under workers’ compensation. But , um, he , I did hit that foam with that mallet at full force and could feel nothing underneath it. Just a little bit of the pressure of the mallet hitting the foam, but he certainly had no pain.

Richard Miles:

And Betsy, what is going on, what is happening as that force comes into contact with the foam, that’s different than conventional foam.

Betsy Condon:

So auxetic foams actually have a honeycomb type structure and that honeycomb can actually collapse on itself. So what you’re seeing is those little diamonds that make up the honeycomb, if you will, collapsing on themselves to give it more durability and making a denser place for whatever is hitting it to hit.

Richard Miles:

I see. Okay. That makes a lot of sense. Yeah. If I think about a beehive or something like that, if you’re to punch it, presumably you get the same effect somehow, if you could withstand all the bees stinging you right.

Betsy Condon:

And so actually the way that auxetic foam works is that we’re actually changing the structure of the material of the polyurethane foam. It’s a clean process that we have patented and we use no chemicals. So it’s completely environmentally friendly. It leaves no residue in the foam. People often ask about that. It’s just purely that we’re changing the structure of the foam.

Richard Miles:

And Betsy, did you develop this actual processor ? Is this a licensed technology?

Betsy Condon:

It’s a licensed technology. So the VA actually funded $4 million of research at Florida State University, High Performance Materials laboratory, where they perfected making auxetic foam in a repeatable process. And they actually hold the patents where the exclusive licensee of that, the research, the VA originally funded was for a prosthetic sock . One of the problems for prosthesis w earers today is that the residual limb where they’ve had the amputation doesn’t function like our foot would, it’s not designed to carry all the load of the body walking on it. And t he, the constant compression well today’s solution that prosthetic w earers have is they put on and take off multiple pairs of cotton socks as the day goes on. And their residual limb swells, y ou k now, the swelling goes down based on heat and the amount of walking they’re doing and that kind of thing. So the VA wanted a better solution to one protect the wound site because oftentimes prosthesis wearers c an get wounds on that area that won’t heal. Auxetic foam doesn’t have any creases in it. It’s what’s called thin clastic. It means it can bend without creasing so it can provide better protection. Additionally, they wanted something that based on swelling or lack of swelling could either expand or compress based on the need of the body. So that’s what the research was originally for.

Richard Miles:

So the research was sponsored by the VA. Did you say the VA holds the patent or?

Betsy Condon:

No, Florida State University holds, they hold two of the patents. Then when we licensed the technology, it needed a little bit more perfection to actually get into manufacturability. And so oxidize actually holds additional patents that are part of the m anufacturer process.

Richard Miles:

And Betsy, do you know the actual adventures of the technology? What were they looking for? What were they trying to do? Did they have this end goal in mind and developing the foam? Is that what they set out to do?

Betsy Condon:

They really set out to one, develop a method of m anufacture for auxetic foam that could be more than just a laboratory one time and tw o to develop a prosthetic sock. So those are the two patents that Florida State holds. Additionally, we had to, I guess, tweak the method of manufacturer, add to it. And those are the patents that we hold.

Richard Miles:

Okay. So when you say we, in this case, it’s you and your husband?

Betsy Condon:

Correct. Okay. All right. Where I’m , I’m already sympathetic to husband wife team. So for some reason, I don’t know why. So tell me a little bit about your story, Betsy and your husband’s . How did you decide to acquire the technology? What were you thinking? And then what was your experience before that, in terms of, are you a scientist and engineer, a business woman? And tell me how that connection happened? Sure. So Joe and I have a combined 45 plus years experience in manufacturing, and a lot of that was in medical device manufacturing, and we decided we wanted to leave corporate America. We had a goal and we wanted to own our own manufacturing company. So we set out to try to find technology that matched with our backgrounds. And there was a three year period of time that Joe ran a prosthetics and orthotics company in Michigan. So when we saw the technology at Florida State University, we thought this is a great match. So we set out to acquire the technology, believing that we would be a little prosthetic sock manufacturing company in Keystone Heights, Florida, which is my hometown. And my dream was high tech , high wage jobs right here in North central Florida, where graduates of high school can go to the University of Florida or the other state universities, get these degrees and have a reason to come back and raise their families where I had the pleasure of growing up and now raising our family. So that’s kind of how we got started in that. What we didn’t realize is the applications of auxetic foam. We knew that we would have multiple applications. And so we started off and we thought, well, we need to pick three verticals. So our verticals are medical devices, sports equipment, and apparel and military, and first responder equipment. Our passion is making a difference in the lives of people. So we didn’t just want to make a product to make a product. We wanted to make a product that would make a difference in people’s lives. And it has been more than we thought it would be.

Richard Miles:

So Betsy, do you already have a manufacturing facility and it’s already cranking out some of these products?

Betsy Condon:

Four years ago when we started, we started in our garage just like Dell and Nike and Microsoft and several other of the big companies. So we’re hoping that our in game will be what theirs is. But , um, three years ago we needed a bigger facility. And so we acquired a piece of property in our hometown that had actually been abandoned. It was a hardware store that had gone out of business and had sat vacant for three years. So we went to Capitol City Bank, which I know is one of your sponsors at Cade at the C ade Museum. And they took a chance on us and believed in our technology and believed in us as entrepreneurs and gave us a loan to purchase this facility. And it has been a real blessing.

Richard Miles:

So I’m guessing that’s gotta be one of the only manufacturing facilities in Keystone Heights.

Betsy Condon:

So actually, I believe that we are like the third. There’s a cabinet manufacturer and a manufacturing company that makes metal ramps.

Richard Miles:

So for those of our listeners that aren’t familiar with Keystone Heights and it’s probably quite a few, it’s a small town Northeast of Gainesville, would you say right? And I actually know where it is. Cause my sister-in-law and her family used to live there. And so we talked about this a little while ago, but it is a small town. You said, that’s your hometown. So you grew up in Keystone. Okay. But your husband’s not from Keystone. So you met in Gainesville, but you’re both still in the corporate world at that point.

Betsy Condon:

And Joe is an engineer by trade, but worked his whole career in manufacturing, operations, executive positions. My background is in environmental health science and I worked most of my career in the manufacturing environment as director of environmental health and safety, and actually won some awards with that was very proud of that work. Then I left corporate America became a full-time stay-at-home mom to raise our kids, but didn’t stay home very well. I actually got involved in the school system, volunteering and then advocating for kids and actually ran and was elected to my local school board and served a term there.

Richard Miles:

Volunteering schools is like the gateway drug to entrepreneurship practice. I think so unsolvable problems and, you know, lack of support and so on. Tell us a bit more about your decision and your husband’s decision to become entrepreneurs because that’s a risky move. You’re taking a significant risk, a financial risk. You’re doing something by definition that no one else is doing or very few people are doing, and there’s not necessarily an obvious path to success out of your garage to the, to the next level. Right. So was it sort of one moment th at, that you and your husband decided you want to do this? Or was it a process over several years or months where you just kind of toyed with the idea and then finally took the plunge?

Betsy Condon:

So I think that we really didn’t what we were getting into. Certainly we recognized the risk and its great personal financial risk. Basically you’re leveraging everything that you have to make this dream come true. I don’t think we really ever thought that, Hey, we’re going to be entrepreneurs. We knew we wanted to own our own business. We knew we wanted to be our own bosses and we knew we wanted to make a difference in our lives and our employee’s lives. Beyond that. I think we had both spent so much time in manufacturing and in the corporate setting, we knew things we would want to see done differently and things we would want to repeat. I think if we look back over the last four years that our company has been in existence, we have certainly ridin the roller coaster . It is not without stomach dropping moments, more of those than others where you’re wondering how you’re going to pay the next bill, how you’re going to make the next payroll run. I still don’t take a salary. Joe takes a very small salary from our business. We still do other things to help pay our bills. When I say do other things, we do other work to help pay the bills in our personal lives so that we can put as much money into making this dream come true as we can. But then there are also the great moments where you’re cheering. And when you see on the caller ID accompany calling, that is huge. That’s a normal household name that you think is going to make your company. And that happened to us about a year and a half into having this little company, we got a phone call from one of the largest athletic companies in the world and they wanted to create a development agreement with us. We were really excited about it. Our product was performing great for them and a year and a half later into that development agreement, they dropped us. And that was one of those h eart’s thinking moments. And we wondered how our little company was going to make it. We really thought that the next 30 days after that could either be bankruptcy or could be a turning point. And we were fortunately able to make it into a turning point for our company and found a different vertical to go into. So at that point, the U.S. Army called us and said, we have a concussion problem in soldiers and no one has been able to solve this problem. Would you be interested in a development contract to do some research work for us to see if you can find a better solution? So that filled that gap, but 30 days prior to that, we thought we were going out of business.

Richard Miles:

Well, interesting. Something you said earlier about one of the reasons you wanted to start your own business was to be your own boss. And when you first s tarted out, t hat’s thrilling, right? I mean, y ou’re, you get to make all the decisions and nobody h ave to check with committees and everything. But as most entrepreneurs l ook at the flip side of that, right, i s you can’t necessarily walk away when you’re dissatisfied. You can’t say, well, it’s somebody else’s problem. I’m just g oing t o go home and not worry about it being your own boss a nd particularly being the owner. You have to think about it because no one else will. And if you don’t think about it, then you’re looking at failure.

Betsy Condon:

Absolutely. And you can’t say it’s Saturday, I’d really like to go walk around the Spring Arts Festival. You have to say, it’s Saturday, we’re behind on our orders and trying to get this little thing off the ground or this new product designed for this company that may be , they will love these prototypes and order more. And so those kinds of things keep you up at night.

Richard Miles:

And then once you start hiring employees, you feel like a sense of responsibility because there’s employees have put their faith in you and that you’re going to be providing a paycheck for them and their families. And so you have that extra layer of worry. Now it’s not just about the company, it’s about the people that work.

Betsy Condon:

And I think that is probably true for all entrepreneurs. You have to look for that sustainability so that when you pull that trigger to hire extra help, more employees, you want to make sure the work’s going to be there so that you can keep that employee and keep them gainfully employed, which I think that other companies just kind of don’t think through certainly in a small company, a small startup company, there are no benefits to offer. You can’t necessarily pay extremely high wages, right? So you’re looking for other people who have kind of the spirit of let’s take a chance.

Richard Miles:

So Betsy, we always ask people on the show sort of to dispense the wisdom that they have collected in , in their journey as an inventor or entrepreneur. So if you and Joe were to see a similar couple or somebody in a similar circumstance, maybe yourselves 10, 15 years ago, and they said, Hey, we’ve got this great idea. We’re going to leave our jobs and we’re going to start a business. And what nuggets of wisdom would you give them ? What advice would you say? Well, here are the things you need to think about. And here are things you definitely should do and hear things you should definitely not do. Do you have a list like that? And running lists like that in your head, or? Tell us.

Betsy Condon:

I do. I would say don’t leave that job. Start your business. Before you give up that income. I would also say, learn to say no. One of the things that we saw is when we did our initial investment, our initial convertible note raise of funding for our company. We had so many people coming out of the woodwork and everyone wants to sell you something o r sell you their services for a fee or for a percentage of your equity in your company.

Richard Miles:

And these are services targeted at young businesses, right?

Betsy Condon:

Yes.

Richard Miles:

It’s startups, right?

Betsy Condon:

Yes. People who say, I have contacts that can get you, these customers, I can help you design your company. I’ve done this before. I’ve done this four times before and I have experienced that. You need, the problem is that initial seed funding that you get from wherever it is dries up very quickly. And if you haven’t said yes to yourself and know to a lot of those other things, I don’t think you’ll be successful. I’m not sure that I can say this on your show. But Dave Ramsey , Entree Leadership Book has been very helpful for us for young entrepreneurs who are to start a business. And he, one of the things he talks about is pay yourself first and don’t go into a lot of debt to get started in your own business. So I think that I could recommend that book as a piece of literature. I think also believing in yourself and taking that chance apply for every grant you can. We applied for a grant with the NFL recently, and we were awarded that grant to do research on better protection for football players. That one grant that we’d got from the NFL has had our phone ringing off the hook. I really think if we could look at a turning point, that’s probably the biggest turning point in our company, f our years i n. And it was a relatively small grant we applied for in the scheme of things. So I think apply for anything. You can, any funding, any competitions, but then be choosy also. Some of these pitch competitions that w ill tell you, we can get you this kind of funding, make sure there’s a prize involved. Make sure that it’s something you won’t owe them back. But believe in yourself, if anyone is at the point of wanting to be an entrepreneur, they already have that spirit of success. They already know that they can see the finish line. They can take the idea, t he research, the technology, and know what it can be in the marketplace. But I wouldn’t pick a technology that you can’t see a market for. And you don’t know who your customers would be ultimately.

Richard Miles:

So I , I guess I should have told you about that thousand dollar Radio Cade registration fee, right? You can pay on your way out. That’s all great advice. It sounds like you and Joe have already packed in 20 years worth of wisdom and probably about how long you’ve been in business for?

Betsy Condon:

Four years.

Richard Miles:

Yeah. You’ve been quite a number of milestones and highs and lows, to be honest in that four years.

Betsy Condon:

Well, but in the entrepreneurial world four years is a decade.

Richard Miles:

Exactly. Betsy , thanks very much for coming on the show. I wish you the best of luck as you develop your company, you and Joe, and looking forward to having you in the Cade Museum to sort of educate the general public about not only your technology, but the life of an entrepreneur and what that means.

Betsy Condon:

Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity.

Richard Miles:

I’m Richard Miles

Outro:

Radio Cade would like to thank the following people for their help and support Liz Gist of the Cade Museum for coordinating and vendor interviews. Bob McPeak of Heartwood Soundstage in downtown Gainesville, Florida for recording, editing and production of the podcast and music theme, Tracy Collins for the composition and performance of the Radio Cade theme song, featuring violinist, Jacob Lawson and special thanks to the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention located in Gainesville, Florida.

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