INVENTORS’ ALLEY

Fort Worth visionaries dream big with their own unique technology, designs and products.

| by Sean Chaffin | photography by Alex LepeBusiness shows are everywhere on television right now, extolling the glories of invention, entrepreneurship and utilizing one’s passion for a product or business to fill a role in the marketplace. Thomas Edison once noted: “To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” Several Fort Worth area inventors certainly have that imagination and are trying to make a difference with their ideas, designs and, certainly, hard work.

Corey Whitney Corey Whitney is a former Marine who had a big dream. As a teenager, his first job, flipping burgers, led to a passion that would continue well into adulthood – and lead to a unique music industry invention.

“I grew up in a musical family but not necessarily a family that had the resources to dedicate all of our time to music,” he says. “I actually had to buy my first guitar with my very first paycheck from my very first job at Burger King. I bought a guitar and I never looked back. The next paycheck, I put gas in my car and bought an amp.”

Whitney would go on to serve in the Marines for 13 years and received an assignment in Florida that allowed him to have some extra time on his hands. He got back into playing guitar, and soon found he began to reach a barrier where he wasn’t improving. Whitney began shopping for better amps and gear – including guitar picks.

“One of the local shops turned me on to a better guitar pick, and I played with that for a while. I was like, ‘Wow, guitar picks really improve your playing a whole lot,’ ” he says. “So I started researching all the guitar picks out there because I really didn’t know anything about them at the time. And I bought all these guitar picks on the Internet and local shops because it was an easy thing to invest in because they’re not that expensive.”

By 2010 Whitney had already gotten into building his own guitars as a hobby, and a year later decided manufacturing his own guitar pick would be the next step. With a MythBusters-like analysis, he began researching and then settling on a material he thought would work best and then moved on to the perfect shape.

Guitar-playing friends were quickly asking for their own custom-made picks. As more and more were produced, Whitney realized he may have just “built a better mousetrap,” as they say.

“Eventually, it was like, ‘Okay, enough people are into this; maybe I need to look into refining it and take it to the next level,’ ” says Whitney, who describes himself as a math and science type of guy who enjoys making things better.

After leaving the Marines in 2013, Whitney (originally from Lansing, Mich.) was ready to take his guitar pick business seriously. He began designing in his garage after moving to Fort Worth with his fiancé (whose family lives in the area) and worked to receive his patent. The business really got rolling in 2014, and after researching the entire manufacturing process, Whitney went ahead with his first production run.

“We got them back, and I was just blown away,” he says. “I did a lot of homework to make sure we didn’t make a lot of mistakes. I was really glad we did.”

The name of the company, Dragon’s Heart, came from the picks’ unique heart-like shape, and they were soon live online and available in several area retail locations. Producing something and selling it proved to be different things entirely. Whitney learned quite a bit about marketing.

“When you’re starting out and launching a product live online to the world, it’s really so up and down,” he says. “Initially, sales were very disappointing, but that’s because no one knew about it. The instant we got any kind of media recognition, sales went through the roof.”

The company has now been through several more production runs since debuting the guitar picks, and sales continue to grow. Whitney works full time with the company and is staying busy. He still builds guitars and is currently working on another pick design. And, of course, Whitney works in some guitar playing when time allows.

Cheri Garcia Successful inventors are problem solvers. They create something not currently in the marketplace or a solution to a problem. In 2010, Cheri Garcia’s solution hit her while lounging in the pool on a relaxing afternoon, soaking up some sun to improve her tan. But there was a problem. It was early spring, so the pool wasn’t quite warm yet, and the float would sink partly into the water – cold water coming in, giving her a chill.

“I wanted to get a good tan, but tanning lotion would have rubbed off anyways,” she says. “That’s when I came up with the idea for Luminous Envy. It’s a tanning float that sits above the water, made with angled side panels and reflective material.”

Garcia jumped out of the pool soaking wet and began searching Google for any patents similar to her idea. Realizing her idea was unique, she was soon patenting her invention, designing and building a prototype – and Luminous Envy was born. The float’s unique design keeps the tanner warm and dry, perfect for any month of the year. But getting the product from the idea stage to manufacturing stage was no easy process.

With most inventors, money is a big factor. Garcia didn’t realize how much it would cost to market her invention, and before she knew it had already spent $75,000.

“You know how the old saying goes, ‘It takes money to make money,’ ” she says. “That’s the truth, because filing for a patent and getting inventory is not a cheap process. I had to prove myself to family to get them to loan me the money so I could move forward. The invention process is not an easy road to travel. I had to go through quite the learning curve.”

Sales proved to be a learning curve as well. Garcia faced a harsh reality staring at a storage unit full of thousands of units she wasn’t able to sell as quickly as she hoped.

“Every inventor thinks they have the next best thing since sliced bread, and everyone will want a piece,” she says.

Pessimists added to her stress. In the beginning, several people told Garcia her idea was stupid, would cost too much and wouldn’t sell. But she persevered. Family believed in her and loaned her capital to get Luminous Envy off the ground.

Despite the learning curve, Garcia was able to sell her product and learned that being tenacious helps. Leslie’s Pool Supplies turned her down the first few times she reached out but eventually relented and now is her best selling retail location.

Marketing was another challenge. After a few costly mistakes, getting the product featured on TV segments got the ball rolling.

Looking back, Garcia believes she was born to be an inventor. In second grade, she created bookmarks out of yarn and sold them door-to-door. When she got older, Garcia created a peanut butter-flavored maple syrup and sold it door-to-door. The bookmarks proved a more successful venture. Strangers were a bit leery about her. In high school, she started a newscast to air before school each morning and worked at CBS after graduation.

Garcia’s inventiveness and entrepreneurism hasn’t slowed down. Recently she won a CodeLaunch.com competition for an investment in her app called RentEval. The app simplifies the walk-through process for property management companies doing move-out inspections. She was also accepted into a Dallas-based accelerator called Tech Wildcatters, which gave her $25,000 and space for three months to build her start-up. She also received an outside investment and hopes to take the app to the next level.

As an inventor and entrepreneur, Garcia enjoys mentoring others – even creating an online course called InventorAdventures.com that walks new inventors through the process.

“I want to inspire people of all ages to reach for their dreams. I didn’t have an easy path, and I stumbled a few times,” she says. “Now I take pride in teaching others how to find their passion.”

Dr. John A. Schetz Currently there are more than 41 million Americans age 65 and older. And among those, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia or loss of intellectual function – affecting 5.1 million people, a number that is expected to triple by mid-century. According to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, Americans spend between $157 and $200 billion annually on dementia care. And researchers like Fort Worth’s Dr. John A. Schetz are on the front lines of battling these types of diseases through the discovery and development of therapeutic or disease prevention agents. He and his team’s research could have a direct impact on an aging population of baby boomers.

Schetz, an associate professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Neuroscience at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, says his work focuses on preventing the initial damage or facilitating the recovery from neurodegenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and ischemic stroke.

“In the case of neurodegenerative disease, the goal is to prevent or slow the progression of disease; while in the case of stroke and other types of traumatic brain injury, the goal is to improve recovery,” he says.

Schetz’s research goes beyond neurodegenerative disease. In 2012, the Metroplex was ground zero for West Nile virus and cost the state $47 million to combat it. There are new fears that dengue fever, another mosquito-borne disease, is on the rise in Florida and Texas. Another current interest among Schetz and his team concerns the discovery and development of safe mosquito and tick deterrents for the prevention of the transmission of these types of disease (such as West Nile, dengue, Lyme disease, and malaria) to humans, livestock and pets. Among some scientists, there is a growing concern that insects may become resistant or tolerant to the common repellant DEET and similar chemicals.

“Most people probably do not realize that mosquitoes are the world’s deadliest animals, causing more deaths to people every year than any other animal,” he says. “The process of innovation can be quite messy and often requires a level of commitment that few are willing to make but that many are happy to share, analogous in a way to the making of sausage.”

Even from an early age, Schetz has always been interested in repairing things and experimenting. Growing up, he enjoyed taking apart mechanical and electrical devices, repairing broken items and building things in his father’s workshop. At one point, he and his older sister built a small cottage industry. He created wooden dolls, and she sewed clothes for them. One summer, a professor who lived nearby needed fireflies for some experiments and paid neighborhood kids for each live firefly they could deliver. All the kids were trying to invent new ways to catch more fireflies, Schetz included. That idea of invention and improvement stuck with him.

“As I got older, I had three newspaper routes,” he says. “As you might imagine, I delivered a lot of newspapers, and I was always experimenting with new ways to deliver them faster under the different weather conditions.”

While his current projects are not yet at the product stage, Schetz continues to advance science in many areas in hopes that “sausage-making” approach to science will lead to breakthroughs in the future. Other current research areas include: novel treatment strategies for aggressive forms of cancer such as lung and pancreatic cancer; and the sustainable control of aquatic and marine nuisance species ranging from bacteria and algae to zebra mussels and barnacles. Little by little, Schetz believes research will make a difference in these areas.

“Usually the bottleneck to progress is due to two things: technical/operational challenges and inadequate sources of funding,” he says. “My guess is that most people likely do not fully appreciate that the whole process may require many failed attempts before success is ultimately achieved, like a child first learning to walk.”

Debra Weidanz An enthusiasm for research and interest in science were part of the catalyst for Debra Weidanz’s eventual decision to pursue her own invention. As an undergraduate at the University of Texas-Arlington in the Department of Electrical Engineering, she conducted research through Dr. Robert Magnusson and others, brainstorming new ideas and technology in optics.

Out of that graduate work at UTA came the initial research for what would become Weidanz’s company, Resonant Sensors. Her colleague, Sorin Tibuleac, and Magnusson were also involved in the invention development. An advanced piece of technology, the sensors offer a method of measuring biochemical interactions using light. The sensor element acts fundamentally as an optical filter that changes its response depending on what is around it. The sensors monitor changes at the sensor surface in real-time by measuring the color of light reflected or transmitted, allowing the viewing of a biochemical reaction.

In layman’s terms, the sensors can determine what’s in the air or in a liquid rapidly, without having to send samples to a lab. This means diagnostic tests can be performed quickly (typically less than 15-30 minutes) and be done with minimal labor since many processing steps are eliminated. The devices can be important for detecting toxins but are also useful to help speed new drugs to market by making it faster to test them. Several agencies and foundations provided small business funding for product development and research.

“The invention came about by looking at conventional laboratory diagnostic approaches and coming up with a better way,” Weidanz says. “Standard immunoassay [tests that can be used on-site and in the laboratory to detect specific molecules] approaches are very labor intensive and require many hours and extensive chemical processing steps before you obtain results. Our approach allows the user to monitor their test while it happens. This has many profound applications in discovering new drug compounds in the pharmaceutical industry, biotech research and development, and ultimately in the medical, veterinary and industrial diagnostics areas.”

Weidanz and her research partners filed their final patent application in 2000 and licensed the technology from UTA in 2004. The group received a small grant in 2006 from the National Science Foundation to get the business off the ground as well as funding from the Texas Emerging Technology Fund and other investors followed, allowing for the launch of the first beta product around in 2012. The company is now also working on new applications in medical diagnostics and in point-of-care applications.

There were many challenges in getting the product to market, including the manufacturing process development. Producing a sensor is easy, but being able to manufacture in mass with low cost proved tough. Family and friends were supportive, although sometimes concerned about the stress and financial risks associated with being an entrepreneur. In the end, the product is being utilized in many locations.

“Most people who start a technology company for the first time don’t realize how tough it can be to get to the stage of selling a product,” Weidanz says. “There are many roadblocks along the way – funding, personnel, technical, et cetera. Truly, whatever you can think might go wrong probably will. Perseverance is key. As a small company with limited funds, you don’t have the luxury of having people dedicated to particular roles. You have to be willing to get out of your comfort zone, including being willing to empty the trash.”

Rick McAdoo and Russ Campbell The average person swallows once every two minutes, about 720 times a day. But what if you couldn’t? Dysphagia, difficulty with swallowing, affects 18 million people in the U.S. It’s a problem most people rarely think about until food or liquid enters the airway or “goes down the wrong pipe.” In healthy people, the problem is usually overcome with a cough or throat clear, but for many with a preexisting condition such as a stroke, head and neck cancer, or progressive neurological disease such as Parkinson’s, this scenario could be life threatening.

Pneumonia, largely arising from swallowing problems, is the fifth leading cause of death of Americans over 65 years of age. Each year, according to the Agency for HealthCare Policy and Research (AHCPR), more than 60,000 Americans die from complications associated with swallowing dysfunctions. Dysphagia can lead to choking, malnutrition, long-term nursing care, aspiration pneumonia, and death. Current treatment strategies have included wooden tongue blades and cups of ice for a sensory stimulation technique.

Business partners Rick McAdoo and Russ Campbell knew there had to be a better way to treat these patients. While working together in a rehab unit at a local hospital, the two took notice of physical therapists using electrical stimulation for patients with muscle weakness.

“The speech therapy industry was well behind in the training and use of electrical stimulation devices,” McAdoo says. “My background is in speech therapy, and it was after learning how physical therapists use these treatments that the idea to create a device that would work for swallowing musculature instead of the larger muscle groups.”

The two men got to work and developed the Effective Swallowing Protocol (ESP), a specialized form of neuromuscular electrical stimulation, which delivers electrical current through two uniquely designed external electrodes while the patient is performing resistive exercises using a neuro-orthotic posture device.

The men then established Ampcare in 2007 with Campbell as president and CEO, and McAdoo as vice president. The company aims to help patients rehabilitate and regain the ability to swallow after strokes, progressive neurological diseases, and head and neck cancer complications.

“This product will revolutionize the treatment of dysphagia to speech therapy that historically has spawned limited innovation,” McAdoo says. “As a result, we anticipate a dramatic rise in the number of clinicians that will require education and certification on this protocol globally to improve the quality of life for their patients.”

The product has been in use since 2012, and currently Ampcare is FDA-cleared and has launched the product to companies providing long-term care rehabilitation services across the U.S. Family and friends were instrumental in providing emotional and financial support.

“Our sales have been on a continual positive trend, and this is typical for this type of device, which requires training prior to being used by licensed clinicians,” McAdoo says. “With the product being used only by certified clinicians, the process of getting them trained is the first hurdle.”

So far, Ampcare has trained professionals from Washington, California and Maine with interest outpacing the company’s ability to train them. Campbell and McAdoo plan on adding additional trainers as well as an online option for clinicians. One of the biggest challenges the Ampcare founders faced was taking their health care idea and turning it into a business. They sought out Tech Fort Worth, a non-profit business incubator program, to assist with developing a business plan and commercialization. The decision was instrumental in overcoming regulatory affairs and defining the market.

“As clinicians, we look to provide every service possible in the best interest of the patient, not to determine the business value inside an innovation,” McAdoo says. “We chose to be experts in our chosen fields, but had to become business people by necessity.”

Ampcare has grown from an idea in 1993 to a globally marketed product with the potential to help more than 20 million people. Through it all, Campbell’s and McAdoo’s passion and vision for caring for patients continue.