SEMA Launch Pad 2021
Part One: The Semifinalists
By Douglas McColloch
The top 10 semifinalists at Launch Pad 2021 are (left to right): D.J. Potter, Sawtooth; Adam Gruener, Off-Road in Mind; Dustin Woolf, Woolf Pack Racing; Monica Kalenski, MEK Magnet; Tom Sawarynski, Off-Road Design; Jonathan Hurley, Toolbox Widget; Brendan McGrath, Dyme Performance Systems; Kevin Robinson, TRAC LLC; Robert McKeirnan, Stratos Meccanica; Michael Ruhs, TailHand.
Since its inception in 2013, SEMA Launch Pad has been the automotive specialty-equipment market’s ultimate competition for entrepreneurs under the age of 40 who are ready to introduce their products to a worldwide audience. However, because SEMA is always looking for ways to improve the event and to broaden its appeal, some changes were made for 2021 to encourage even greater competition: The age limit was removed to make it easier for more participants to qualify, and the amount of cash prizes and other considerations were increased, with more participants than ever featured in SEMA’s publications and social-media channels.
The ninth annual SEMA Launch Pad competition included a record-high number of applications. From those, 15 semifinalists were chosen by a panel of industry experts. After each competitor completed a 1-min. “lightning-round” presentation, 10 were chosen to advance to the next round. This article reviews that competition, and we’ll focus next month on the top five finalists who were chosen to pitch their business ideas at the 2021 SEMA Show and compete for a top prize worth nearly $100,000. Videos of all the preliminary rounds are now available for viewing at SEMA’s YouTube page (www.youtube.com/sema), and the finals will be broadcast after the Show at a date and time to be determined.
Launch Pad 2021 was judged by an expert panel of accomplished industry veterans that included (left to right) Jared Hare, Addictive Desert Designs; Chip Foose, Chip Foose Design; Alex Parker, Redline Detection; Myles Kovacs, TIS Wheels.
The rules for Launch Pad are straightforward: The competition is open only to legal residents of the United States and the District of Columbia aged 18 years or older (residents of Alabama and Nebraska must be 19 or older), and they must have valid email addresses. Applicants need not be SEMA members, but the presenter must be the business’s owner, its leading executive (i.e., president, CEO, CFO, COO) or vice president. The business must offer a product or service that is a functioning prototype, a functioning concept, or a production model currently for sale.
The panel of judges for Launch Pad 2021 was comprised of a quartet of industry leaders with decades of experience and proven track records of success. They included legendary automotive designer and builder Chip Foose; Jared Hare, president and founder of Addictive Desert Designs; Myles Kovacs, co-founder of DUB Publishing and president of TIS Wheels; and Alex Parker, executive vice president and CMO of
For the presentation round, competitors were required to make a two-minute product demonstration for the judges. That was followed, if the judges so decided, by a follow-up Q&A session, “just to make sure they’ve done their homework,” Foose explained.
Jonathan Hurley, owner, Toolbox Widget
Product: ToolBox Widget is a series of modular tool organizers that allow a mechanic to connect as many tool organizers together as needed, making them customizable to the mechanic.
“We’re a simple solution to an age-old problem: ‘How do I organize my tools?’” Hurley explained. “Our products are simple—you have individual pieces with male and female ends, and you simply add as many organizers as you want [to your toolbox]. Each organizer has an orange stripe painted across it, so if you look inside your toolbox and don’t see orange, you know you’ve got all your tools. See an orange stripe? You know you’re missing a tool.
“We currently have 16 products for sale, and we’re splitting the product line to include both the professional-grade and the DIY markets.”
While noting that his products are currently made overseas, Hurley expressed his desire to use the first-place prize to offset the cost of repatriating the manufacturing process to the United States.
Monica Kalenski, president and CEO, MEK Magnet
Product: Removable Trail Armor is printed bodyside protection paneling utilizing nano-hold technology to stick to aluminum and non-metal vehicles. The product protects vehicles from scrapes and scratches when off-roading while also adding style with graphics.
After an off-road trip in Kalenski’s first Jeep that left her vehicle’s bodywork with a bad case of trail rash, she began looking for a solution. “I looked all over, and there was nothing out there, so I invented it,” she said.
The MEK Magnet is available with both a conventional magnetic backing and a newly launched version that utilizes resin and nano-hold gel technology to facilitate secure adhesion and easy cleanup.
“It’s reusable up to 200 times, and it’s washable,” Kalenski said, adding that the product is manufactured at two U.S. production facilities—one in California and another in Pennsylvania. “You don’t carry your phone without a case,” she concluded, “so why hit the trails without trail armor?”
Adam Gruener, CEO, Off-Road in Mind
Product: RGB-Recovery Gear Box can be used for recovery gear, emergency gear or for any other storage need and is typically attached to a spare tire on the back of a vehicle.
“I came up with RGB on an off-roading trip with a friend,” Gruener explained, bemoaning the Jeep’s shortage of interior storage space. “After I got back, I drew a really bad sketch on a piece of paper, and I gave the sketch to my son, who’s a mechanical engineer. He put it into CAD, and we went through 14 versions before we came up with this.” It’s a circular storage box that attaches to a Jeep’s rear-mounted spare tire without interfering with the backup camera or the third brake light.
The RGB has a swing-open hatch. Once it’s opened, “you now have access to everything you need.” The RGB also utilizes a perforated backing plate that provides multiple attachment points “to store your gear wherever you want or so you can adjust to whatever rim you have,” Gruener concluded.
Brendan McGrath, CEO, Dyme Performance Systems Inc.
Product: Rattlesnake Toolkit is a multi-use toolkit that can measure the exact length and angle of a custom hose assembly down to the millimeter, significantly reducing time and cost.
“We created the toolkit by deconstructing the problem, which turns out to be communications, because the users and the vendors don’t understand each other,” McGrath explained. “I look at this product as a ‘translation tool’ so that anyone of any skill set can speak ‘hose.’ They can pick up this product, put together the size and length they need, choose the fittings they need, and they’re done.
“With this kit, you’ve got the variation to make six to seven billion different configurations because the angles of the fittings and the angles between the fittings are different.”
Once a hose-and-fitting prototype has been mocked up, McGrath noted, it can be easily replicated as an entire assembly as many times as the user wants.
Robert McKeirnan, president and managing partner, Stratos Meccanica LLC
Product: Strada and Corsa Concealed Quick Disconnect Interface is a concealed interface for mounting a license plate or camera to the front of a vehicle. The interface does not require drilling holes into the front bumper, nor tools to remove once installed.
“This setup allows you to switch between strada, or ‘street,’ and corsa, or ‘track,’” McKeirnan explained.
One interface uses a magnetic pullout quick-disconnect while the other relies on a twist-on spring mechanism. Brackets can accommodate either a license plate (strada) or a GoPro action camera (corsa) and use the factory tow-hitch port for attachment to the vehicle. They’re available individually or as a bundle and do not interfere with any front-end sensors.
“If you have an individualized license plate that you don’t want to lose, you can just pull it off and throw it in your car when you’re not around,” McKeirnan said. “You don’t have to worry about having some special tool to release it.”
Dustin Woolf, owner, Woolfpack Racing
Product: Natural Nitrous is a stand-alone refrigerated system for the air induction of an engine. It lowers the air charge and dehumidifies the moisture, which increases horsepower because there are dense oxygen atoms in the cylinder. It also lowers emissions because of the complete burn of the fuel.
“It’s a first-ever design,” Woolf said. “It’s a refrigeration system where you have an evaporator that absorbs heat, a condenser that rejects heat, and a compressor that moves around the refrigerant.
“I’m a drag racer, so when we started R&D for this, we started with getting more horsepower. Now we’re making clean horsepower, which sounds crazy—increasing horsepower without adding emissions.”
Woolf said that if he wins the competition, he hopes to invest the money into mass production. (For his presentation, he had only a prototype to display.)
“The response we get at drag races to this has been jaw-dropping,” he said. “My main desire right now is getting the product out there, with quality in mind.”
Kevin Robinson, president, TRAC LLC
Product: The TRAC (Tire Rotation Assistance Cart) is a tool designed to simply lift and remove a wheel from a vehicle during service. The tool is designed to reduce workplace injuries while increasing productivity.
“I was in a shop environment one day, and there was an elderly mechanic working next to me,” Robinson explained. “I heard a lot of moaning and struggling to remove a tire and wheel. I felt bad for him, so I came up with an idea. I stopped what I was doing in the shop and drew it up.”
The TRAC cart rolls under the tire to carry the weight of the wheel and tire assembly. After the lug nuts are removed, they stay on the cart. The wheel is rolled off to the side, and the mechanic never needs to lift the wheel/tire assembly. The cart doesn’t make contact with the vehicle, avoiding any scratches, and there are no air lines or hoses to interfere with operation.
“Now I have shops where it’s their go-to tool every day,” Robinson said. “It’s proudly made in the U.S.A. and shipped out of Colorado.”
For his part, Robinson was most concerned with inventory management. “We’re oversold right now,” he admitted. If named the winner, he intends to use the prize money to build up a manageable inventory of product.
Tom Sawarynski, owner, Off-Road Research
Product: Smart Cap Module allows any aftermarket shock absorber with a bridge or remote-mounted reservoir to broadcast damper position to an external module or modules.
“As you’re going down over terrain, the wheels are going up and down and the dampers are obviously attached to the suspension,” Sawarynski explained. “The rod is going in and out of the [shock] chamber, and as the rod displaces hydraulic fluid, it moves the dividing piston and compresses the nitrogen in the chamber. That’s what our sensor ‘senses,’ and I believe it’ll be a gamechanger in the market.”
When asked about whether he was concerned about OE product overlap (the manufacturers use the same sensor technology), Sawarynski replied: “Nobody’s doing it in the damper space, and we have a patent pending on this application, so that’s our competitive advantage.”
Michael Ruhs, co-founder and CEO, TailHand
Product: TailHand is a customizable platform and accessories system that mounts directly to most pickup tailgates, providing an “extra hand” for securing tools and raw materials and transforming a tailgate into a mobile workstation.
“There’s something like 56 million pickups registered in the United States alone,” Ruhs said. “You can drive around for 15 min., see someone working from the tailgate of a truck, and it’s never safe. After a near-miss experienced while cutting some logs, I was looking to buy something that would allow me to do it safely. I couldn’t find anything, so we decided to create our own product.”
The TailHand system, which mounts in an aluminum frame sized for either a midsize or a fullsize pickup, allows the operator to safely secure a power tool or raw materials, such as wood, by holding it securely in place.
D.J. Potter, CEO, Sawtooth
Product: Sawtooth Stretch Tonneau Cover and Sawtooth Surfboard Cartop Carrier is a tonneau cover that loads, secures and protects cargo taller than the pickup bed walls.
“My career started in construction management,” Potter explained. “I got into the automotive industry because I needed a product that I couldn’t find.”
The result was a stretch tonneau cover that expands to cover loads that sit above the bedrails of the truck. The unit utilizes an aluminum frame that mounts to the bedrails. Clamps hold the frame in place while lateral crossmembers are installed, and the tonneau then rolls over the completed assembly.
If chosen the winner, Potter intends to devote his winnings to “marketing, marketing, marketing.
“It’ll all probably go back to SEMA,” he joked, adding, “My goal is to make this into a $30 million-a-year company within five to six years.”
After a long day of competition, the five finalists chosen to make their final pitches for up to $100,000 in prizes at the 2021 SEMA show were (left to right) Tom Sawarynski, Dustin Woolf, Kevin Robinson, Brendan McGrath and Jonathan Hurley.
“These were all great products,” Kovacs said. “We’d gotten to know and like the contestants, and we didn’t want to send any of them home.”
With that in mind, the Launch Pad judges deliberated before settling on the five finalists who would make their closing product pitches for the $100,000 top prize at the 2021 SEMA Show in Las Vegas.
- Jonathan Hurley, owner, Toolbox Widget
- Brendan McGrath, CEO, Dyme Performance Systems Inc.
- Kevin Robinson, president, TRAC LLC
- Tom Sawarynski, owner, Off-Road Research
- Dustin Woolf, owner, Woolf Pack Racing
Among the runners-up, all of the contestants saw their experience with Launch Pad as positive overall.
“It really doesn’t change anything for us in terms of where we want to go with the product,” Potter said, reflecting on the competition. “I think SEMA is fantastic. This has been a great opportunity, and I’m happy to have been a part of it.”
“It was great exposure,” Kalenski said, “There’s only going to be great stuff to come out of this, so I’m grateful for the opportunity to have been here.”
“I learned a ton from this,” Ruhs said. “Now it’s full speed ahead.”
“Even for the people who didn’t make it [into the finals], this is a big accomplishment,” Kovacs noted. “SEMA is a huge organization, and this is a great platform for them to launch their products. There are really no losers here—everyone’s a winner.”
Next month: The finals in Las Vegas.
Rounding Out the Top 15
Last May, 15 semifinalists for Launch Pad 2021 were announced, and while the following five competitors did not advance to the later rounds, SEMA wishes to recognize them for their contributions.
They were the following:
Cameron Crummie, Owner, MDV
Product: Guard Modular Brush Guard is a Bluetooth-controlled brush guard for trucks and SUVs that can be reassembled to accommodate add-ons for work or recreation.
Alan Reyes, Co-Founder and President, Xtrusion Designs LLC
Product: Modular Cargo Bedracks is a modular cargo solution that allows the use of T-slot aluminum profiles as its main component, allowing a complete customizable platform for the end user.
Paul Rooprai, CEO, AutoBio LLC
Product: AutoBio Tags is a 2.5-in. round cling that goes inside the windshield and is embedded with technology (QR and NFC) that serves as a portal to a car’s story and is scannable with a smartphone. No app download required.
Michael Sullivan, Owner, Fox Products LLC
Product: RaZorTop Retractable Cap is a roll-open tonneau cover that raises up to a fullsize cap when needed and then retracts by the press of a button on a wireless remote control.
Edward Tansingco, President, Thinskinz
Product: Thinskinz Door Protectors are removable hard plastic interior door panel protectors that snap onto OEM interior door panels without fasteners or adhesives to protect doors against damage from objects or pets inside the vehicle.