Tom Fowler’s path to entrepreneurship began, oddly enough, with a terrifying on-the-field moment in high school. Fowler broke his fifth, sixth and seventh thoracic vertebrae playing football at Midpark High School, an injury that could have left him paralyzed had he not been in such good physical shape.
After recovering, Fowler became a “weight-room maniac,” going on to coordinate strength and conditioning programs for area youth and adults. The experience also became the seedling for the Rippin Roller, an exercise device he developed and recently parlayed into a business.
Last month, Tom Fowler joined four fellow dream makers in the winner’s circle of MSPIRELast month, Fowler joined four fellow dream makers in the winner’s circle of MSPIRE, an annual pitch competition birthed by Cleveland’s Manufacturing Growth Advocacy Network (MAGNET) and held in October. The winning pitches, including Fowler’s, will collect more than $55,000 in subsides, services and loans—representing a crucial milestone on their entrepreneurial journey.
“If I didn’t have MAGNET’s expertise, I’d still be in no man’s land,” says Fowler, 43. “Finding them was like finding a hidden gem.”
Fowler received a full-subsidized $10,000 grant from MAGNET for his idea, as well as three months with the MAGNET Iterator team.
Fowler’s fitness device combines a foam roller, ab wheel, and resistance bands to provide an all-in-one exercise experience. The Berea native tested Rippin Roller prototypes with trainers and end users, and is currently moving forward on a pre-sale campaign.
MAGNET engineers are now shepherding Fowler along the road to a sellable product, when previously the budding business owner couldn’t find a manufacturer to make the device.
“I tried to get this manufactured, but nobody could put it together for me,” Fowler says. “I didn’t know the industry, so I was just going to different manufacturers to figure out what to do. Pitching the product opened the door to IP attorneys, marketing strategists, and engineers. All of that has made my product ready to go to market.”
Ideas into reality
Now in its fifth year, the regional pitch challenge received 74 applications from across Northeast Ohio in 2020. Similar to past iterations, the competition was open to innovations of all kinds—whether an existing prototype or a brand-new idea, says Alec Simon, MAGNET’s startup advisor and a member of the contest’s brain trust.
Alec Simon, MAGNET’s startup advisor In addition to cash rewards and services, finalists get expert advice from a panel of judges representing Tenlo, Marcum, the Hebrew Free Loan Association, and other area organizations.
Alongside Rippin Roller, the winners receiving $10,000, coaching and additional perks are:
- Bust A Move, which uses engineering principles to design sports bras for bustier athletes.
- eSens, whose “pressure sensor technology” measures a runner’s form in real-time.
- Argyle Scientific, which uses "carbon-infiltrated surface technology" to inhibit bacterial growth on surgical implants.
Bringht Line, creator of an automatically restocking produce shelf for grocery stores, received a $10,000 cash prize from Business Growth Collaborative for minority entrepreneurs in Greater Cleveland.
MAGNET held this year’s challenge virtually due to the pandemic, with participants hawking their wares without any major technological hitches.
“The entrepreneurs did a really nice job of conveying their ideas, which is not easy to do in ten minutes,” says Simon. “They gave an appropriate level of detail about their products so the judges could probe with questions when needed.”
Bust A Move founder and CEO Alison Leddy heard about MSPIRE through Venture for America, an organization for recent college graduates interested in building a business. Leddy, a University of Notre Dame mechanical engineering grad from Shaker Heights, is using her technical skills for an athletic equipment company dedicated to keeping female athletes active, regardless of body type.
“We believe sports bras are sports equipment and just as important as cleats, shin guards or basketball shoes,” says Leddy, 27. “This is a fundamental change than what’s out there in the industry. It’s not underwear or lingerie, but a piece of athletic equipment.”
In addition to the $10,000 MAGNET package, Leddy also received a $5,000 assessment from Tenlo.
Leddy is focused on girls and young women ages 13 to 20 who wear a D cup or above, considering breast development is a significant reason this population drops out of sports.
According to a study from the Journal of Adolescent Health that Leddy quotes on her crowdfunding page, approximately 73% of busty girls cite their breasts as a deterrent to exercise. Yet major brands have, in large part, failed to design products outside the standard B cup. Leddy herself had to wear two sports bras as a lacrosse player at Laurel School in Shaker Heights—a situation not uncommon among high-school athletes.
Bust A Move founder and CEO Alison Leddy Working with MAGNET’s team to test and optimize the ideal sports bra is an empowering moment not just for Leddy’s nascent business, but those she hopes to serve as well.
“Being an alumni of an all-girls’ school allowed me to see the power of teen girls,” Leddy says. “If you can get out of their way, they can really make a difference despite the assumptions we can put on them. I’m motivated to help those girls and make their experience better.”
Rippin Roller creator Fowler says the MSPIRE challenge is the perfect avenue for entrepreneurs to pitch their product, no matter from what industry they derive.
“Their team has the capability of meeting your business needs, whatever those may be,” says Fowler. “From building a business from the ground up, or helping your current business make important decisions for further growth. I encourage anyone who has a physical product to enter this competition.”