Strokes of Genius
Strokes of GeniusFrom a fisherman’s twist on a portable grill to a beach-friendly wheelchair, the ideas for some hot new products were conceived right here on the Emerald Coast.By Wendy O. Dixon and Zandra Wolfgram
Do you ever look at a neat invention that enhances your life and ask yourself, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Of course there are the obvious ones — the telephone, computer, microwave oven and automobile. And, lest we forget, the beloved central air conditioning. But what about your toothbrush, pencil or toilet paper? Even these low-tech inventions were once ideas that we now can’t envision living without.
Great ideas can come from anyone — young or old, male or female. In 1824, when he was 15 years old, Louis Braille, who was completely blind by the age of 5, developed a system of reading and writing by means of raised dots. Today it is known as Braille, the standard form of writing and reading used by the blind.
And they can come at any time. Larry Page, co-founder of Google, said the idea for the ubiquitous Internet search engine came in the middle of the night when he dreamed about downloading the entire Web.
The Emerald Coast has some residents who have also come up with ways to enhance our lives. Many of these inventors were inspired by the beaches, green waters and the fish that live in the Gulf to make tools or equipment that allow anyone to enjoy the full benefits of living in Northwest Florida.
Meet several such inventors who turned their creative ideas into reality.
Siblings Katie and Andy Hermann engineered a solution for the scraped knees that come with traditional skimboards. Photo By Scott Holstein
A Shore ThingThe Hermann Family’s Shore Surfer
For the Hermann family, the Shore Surfer appears to be a sure thing.
The family was spending a day at the beach near its Destin home in May 2009. After a losing battle with the sand while riding his boogie board, Andy Hermann, then 11 years old, dreamed of a skim-style surfboard with handles and knee pads to prevent injury for young kids and those new to the sport.
That evening over dinner, the entire Hermann family — Joe, Linda, Joey, Katie and Andy — conceived the Shore Surfer.
Eventually, what began as a sketch on a napkin took shape as a prototype design, thanks to Aiello Designs of Maine. In April 2010, nearly a year since that day of dreaming on the beach, the Shore Surfer launched at a demo party at Henderson Beach State Park.
Not long after the product hit the local beach scene, national media attention followed, including recognition in the July 2010 issue of Coastal Living magazine, which named the Shore Surfer one of its “Best New Beach Products in 2010.”
“That article really launched us onto the national scene,” says Andy’s mother, Linda Hermann.
From the get-go, two things were non-negotiable to the inventive family — that they give something back, and that their product be American-made. The first one was easy. The Hermanns adopted two national charities — Food for the Poor and Ride Nature, to which they donate 10 percent of their sales. The second goal was harder to achieve. With few affordable options available, the Hermanns conceded and had their board made in China for the first year. This year, Linda Hermann says they are proud to partner with a manufacturer in North Carolina.
“Producing the Shore Surfer in the States will give us better quality control, better shipping options, and will allow us to give better service to our customers,” she says.
Now that the Shore Surfer name is trademarked, a patent for the design is pending. The product is available for $39.99 at local beach stores and online at Shore-Surfer.com. The Hermanns are expanding their sales and marketing efforts based on customer demand to purchase the product at local beach shops.
With their marketing goals in mind, Joe and Linda Hermann recently ventured to Orlando to attend one of the largest surf expos in the United States.
“They loved it,” Linda Hermann says. “Professional skim boarders were saying they wished they had thought of it.”
The trip was a success, yielding the start-up business more than 100 independent retailers that want to sell the Shore Surfer all over the world. Though this is a big win for the Hermanns’ company, it’s all a part of their measured success.
“We have consciously decided to grow slowly. The market place can push you into places you aren’t ready to go,” Linda Hermann says.
They are ready to go into the 2011 summer season. Splashy plans are in the works for color-coordinated rash-guard shirts, as well as two new incarnations of the board — a “disposable” one with a lower price targeted to vacationers, and a durable, long-lasting board suitable for rentals.
What does Andy Hermann, now 13, think of the entire experience?
“I guess it’s kind of cool, but it takes a lot of time and patience,” he says.
The Hermanns hope their patience pays off in the end.
“We envision this will become a family business. We see this as a lifeline as our kids grow up,” Linda Hermann says. “Our dream is that this hobby could become very valuable to our future.”
Compact, lightweight and portable, Paul Wohlford’s Bobber-Que-Grill appeals to anglers everywhere. Photo by Scott Holstein
Hot Off the GrillPaul Wohlford’s Bobber-Que-Grill
Passionate about running, fishing and marketing, Paul Wohlford easily parlays his interests into action. The vice president of sales and marketing for The Resort Collection in Panama City Beach was attending a tourism meeting for the Oh Boy! Oberto Redfish Cup Pro-Am tournament in 2008 when the idea of likening the Panama City Beach area to the “Redfish Riviera” — a play off of the area’s nickname, “Redneck Riviera” — came up. And as he has for many other catchy ideas, the energetic executive ran with it.
Wohlford trademarked the name Redfish Riviera and developed a website into an online outfitter dedicated to redfishing. Today, RedfishRiviera.com caters to customers in eight states and sells a range of Redfish Riviera-branded products, from sport fishing apparel to trailer hitches.
In an effort to drive “heads in beds” into the local resorts and hotels, Wohlford organized a half-marathon that he named Run for the Redfish. The event was held in December 2009 at Pier Park in Panama City Beach and attracted 600 racers in its first year. Wohlford expects as many as 1,000 runners at this year’s race. Proceeds of sales benefit local environmental causes. This year, donations are going to the Guy Harvey Foundation, which helps preserve and protect the redfish shoreline habitat.
The creative side of any challenge is a true lure for Wohlford, a longtime lodging leader.
“Once you’re in marketing, you can’t turn it off,” he says. “You think about it seven days a week. It’s not unlike a chef, who can’t eat in a restaurant without critiquing the food.”
Once a concept has become a reality, Wohlford’s payoff is the result.
“I love the aspect of evoking a response,” he says. “To see the first-ever Run for the Redfish be successful, and knowing that it’s going to grow, is certainly rewarding.”
Not long after Redfish Riviera was launched, a boat captain was fingering some lures and bobbers during a meeting for a redfish tournament and said, “This would make a cool grill.” Once again, Wohlford latched on and ran with another live one. He partnered with Thermacell, a mosquito repellant company based in Boston, on a licensing agreement to design, produce and sell a fishing-inspired grill. The end result is the Bobber-Que-Grill, a 14-inch, portable charcoal kettle grill with a top painted to look like a fishing bobber. The grill retails for around $30.
With major retailers such as Bass Pro Shops and Mills Fleet Farm stocking the grill, whose tagline is “Catch the Flavor!,” sales are on fire, with 10,000 grills sold in less than a year. And additional concepts of the Bobber-Que-Grill are heating up, including a larger home version and an iteration that is “hunter-friendly.”
Though he says his plate is full, no doubt this inventive local will be cooking up more novel ideas soon.
“I wish there were more hours in the day and eight days in a week. If you don’t move you just stand still; I’d rather be moving,” Wohlford says as he rushes to make another phone call.
Master fly-fish fly-designer Greg Miheve says inventors are usually born with the need to tinker. Photo by Scott Holstein
A Fly for Every FishGreg Miheve’s fly-fish ties
He spent much of his Air Force career as an interrogator, skillfully extracting information from Vietnamese war prisoners and deserters. But it doesn’t take much grilling to get Greg Miheve, 68, to talk about his passion — fly-fish fly tying.
After enduring bitterly cold winters in Michigan as a child, Miheve (Mah-hay-vee) looked forward to the first sign of spring, when he could spend the warmer afternoons fishing in a nearby lake. He got a fly-tying kit for his 11th birthday and quickly discovered he had a knack for tying fish flies.
When he was 14, Miheve was on “The Rocky Teller Show,” a fishing television show based in Duluth, Minn., where he demonstrated his self-taught fly-tying skills. He was later featured in Pickands Mather Iron Ore magazine, a regional publication focused on the Lake Superior region of the state. That brought him notoriety — and a budding business.
“I was getting knocks on my door at 4 a.m. from fishermen who wanted some good flies to go fishing,” he says.
Tying flies was just a hobby throughout his Air Force career, during which Miheve served as “chief of exploitation” while interrogating Vietnamese POWs and deserters. In a stark contrast to how movies portray POWs being brutally tortured for information, Miheve said he and the other American soldiers gave the prisoners soap and toothpaste for their personal use.
“I actually can’t recall ever touching one of them,” Miheve says of the prisoners. “A guard would lead them into the room and tell them to sit. We just sat across the table from each other. My interpreter would sit next to me. There was no torturing. We just talked to them and got them talking.”
Miheve made a promise to every Vietnamese deserter as part of his strategy to get him to divulge information.
“We promised that we would let them go,” he says. “Which meant they would go back to their ‘friends’ in South Vietnam. Their friends were not very friendly.”
After retiring from the Air Force, Miheve and his family moved to Fort Walton Beach.
He made flies for Orvis, a mail-order sporting goods company, tying 30 dozen flies per week, and then focused on fishing resorts and individual sales. Now Miheve keeps busy with enough orders to work strictly retail as a fly designer, making flies for various clients nationwide, including fly manufacturing company Umpqua. Most of the flies retail for less than $10.
“I get 2 cents per dozen flies (from Umpqua),” he says. “You get a royalty, but you’re never gonna live off that. You just do it for the notoriety.”
Always one to tinker, Miheve says it’s impossible to be a fly-tier and not muck about.
“I tried so many projects I’m up to my nose in them,” he says. “Fly-tiers and fly fishermen are notorious gadget people.”
Miheve says fishing flies have undergone many significant breakthroughs over the past several years, using new materials that didn’t even exist two or three years ago.
“It used to be all feathers and the fur from animals,” he says. “Now you’ve got all kinds of synthetic things. Aerospace engineers are designing special adhesives. Dentists and chemistry guys are using their tools to make new flies. It’s almost impossible to keep up with the new materials.”
Miheve started the first local fly-fishing club, Emerald Coast Flyrodders, in 1985, which was succeeded by Panhandle Flyfishers of Destin.
Now Miheve is satisfied tinkering in his garage and has plenty to keep him busy.
“I don’t dare advertise,” he says. “I’d get swamped.”
Frustrated with tablecloths blowing in the wind and exposing table legs, Jane Birdwell found a solution to a decades-old problem. Photo by Scott Holstein
Chic CoverageJane Birdwell’s Tablevogue
As co-owner of Pensacola-based advertising agency Birdwell Photography and Multimedia with her husband, Thomas, Jane Birdwell, 46, has a roster of local, regional and national clients.
She had years of experience in marketing and branding her clients’ products, but a downward economy was a motivating force that caused her to want a product she could really get behind. Birdwell never thought she’d be the one to invent it.
“We saw a lot of our contacts come to a screeching halt due to the economy,” she says. “I thought we needed to invest in ourselves.”
Coincidently, after years of frustration with standard table coverings that exposed table legs or blew off the table in a strong wind, Birdwell discovered she had an idea that may prove to be a lucrative problem-solver.
“When using tablecloths for hosting events at home, at church and at work, you could never find anything to cover the legs,” she says. “I used to take big bunches of fabric and tie them at the feet, which is not what you want.”
Even though some hostesses have had this complaint since tablecloths were first used, table coverings have not undergone many significant breakthroughs over the past century.
“We think that’s the reason we were successful in securing the patent,” Birdwell says. “The last time a patent was applied for was in the 1950s.”
Now that she had conceived the idea of a tablecloth that covered every inch of the table, her next step was to come up with a workable design.
Birdwell asked Jenny Bailey, a seamstress, to design a tablecloth that fit her specifications. She then formed a partnership with Milliken & Co., an industry leader in textile manufacturing. Birdwell chose a fabric with a patented soil-release feature in a neutral shade that could complement any table setting while also being wrinkle-resistant and washable. Most importantly, the tablecloths needed to provide full-length coverage for standard 6- or 8-foot banquet tables and 34-inch folding card tables.
With her invention underway, Birdwell realized she would need a person to help her focus on branding Tablevogue.
“Things really picked up steam when I hired Virginia Bell to focus solely on Tablevogue,” Birdwell says. “Her energy and passion for the product matches mine, and she is incredibly beautiful and smart and makes the hard part about building the brand and business fun. There is no doubt in mind without her, Tablevogue would still be on the back burner.”
Birdwell credits part of Tablevogue’s success to “mom blogs,” which are written by mothers and feature commentary, discussions and new products related to home life, family, parenting and entertaining.
“They are a big part of today’s social fabric,” Birdwell says. “To underestimate the power of them is stupid.”
Partnerships between Birdwell and some nationally recognized brands are in the works. The table coverings are sold through the Plow & Hearth catalog and Bed Bath & Beyond. And Birdwell will sell the Tablevogue brand in Lowe’s stores and on QVC in the coming months. Prices are around $39.99 for a standard-size card table, $49.99 for a 6-foot banquet table and $59.99 for an 8-foot banquet table.
“To get that far is motivating as heck,” she says. “But it’s also nerve-wracking.”
Birdwell’s advice for potential inventors? Invest in yourself.
“We went into it with no room for failure,” she says. “You can’t do this and think about anything except success.”
John Swett (seated) and his brother Tom invented the Beach Scoot Accommodator II so everyone could enjoy the beach. Photo by Scott Holstein
Swett EquityJohn Swett’s Beach Scoot Accommodator II
When John Swett couldn’t find a beach-friendly wheelchair to enjoy the beaches of Panama City Beach while on vacation with his grandchildren, he decided to invent one.
Scoot forward a few years, and Swett’s sketch of an electric, all-terrain vehicle is now known as the Beach Scoot Accommodator II (patent pending). The two-passenger, disabled-friendly scooter handles all terrains, from beach sand to snow, ice, mud and even wooded trails. It’s a green, all-season vehicle that is easily operable and runs on a 24-volt electric system. It will scoot up to 6 miles per hour for 5 miles on one battery charge.
A jovial, easygoing character who grew up in Marianna, Fla., Swett understands his customers’ needs firsthand. A sudden bout with polio at the age of 5 affected 90 percent of his body. Though he used a wheelchair, in time, his strong upper body allowed him to enjoy swimming and water sports as a youth, which led to a lifelong love of Florida’s beaches.
In recent years, he has experienced post-polio syndrome, which brought on a degeneration of muscle memory. Now, at 61, he relies on his Beach Scoot even more to assist his daily mobility.
“I understand the needs of the mobility-impaired. We’re in the same boat,” he says. “I also know what is really important to people — being with friends and family and enjoying the simple things in life.”
Armed with family support, tenacity and a background in metal fabrication manufacturing, Swett and his brother, Tom, spent 16 months in research and development, testing his prototype at St. Andrews State Park in Panama City Beach “just to get the machine to run in the beach sand.”
Altogether, Swett estimates his idea took about two years from concept to completion. The idea came easily; it’s the financing that has presented the biggest challenges. Though he had a fully operational prototype and business plan in hand, Swett still was denied loans from 10 banks that he says “do not want to fund research and development,” so he and his brother pooled their retirement funds into their product.
Though the final result is “beyond his expectations,” if he had it to do over, Swett says he would have spent even more time researching manufacturers.
“We had a lot of trial and error with companies claiming to do things they could not or who could not meet our quality expectations,” he says.
Being a customer himself, Swett refused to compromise on quality.
“I use it myself. I don’t have time for costly repairs,” he adds. “I want it to be as bulletproof as possible.”
John and Tom Swett have a modest supply of Beach Scoots on hand that are fabricated in Panama City Beach. They also take custom orders, which take from six to eight weeks to build.
“It is industrial grade. It’s not typical; that’s why it works so well,” he explains.
Beach Scoots retail for $7,900 each (BeachScoot.com). They are also available for daily rental all along the coast, from Mexico Beach to Fort Walton Beach. According to Swett, the rental fee ranges from $50 to $65 per day and includes delivery and pick-up.
Swett has already rolled right on to his next venture, the development of a beach wagon that enables wheelchair-bound customers to secure their chair onto a wagon, which can be pulled onto the beach.
“My work to develop other ways for the disabled to enjoy life outdoors and water sports is ongoing,” he says. “I guess I’ll dedicate the rest of my life to improving the quality of life for others.”