SEMA Launch Pad, Presented by YEN
Discovering and Developing Next-Gen Creators and Innovators
Each of the Launch Pad finalists had the opportunity to present his or her business to a panel of experienced industry members. Here, Ed Uehling (far left) showed his KT1 tailgate.
Furthering SEMA’s interest in identifying young, creative leaders and supporting entrepreneurial initiatives, the Young Executives Network (YEN) has produced the Launch Pad competition for the past five years. Through each stage of the competition, the program teaches participants how to evaluate their markets, communicate the benefits of their products, and market them effectively.
Its objective—to find the next great aftermarket business—addresses a concern of many in the industry: Who will be next? This question is always top of mind for YEN’s leadership and was also at the forefront of the 2017 SEMA Show. Themed around recognizing the leadership contributions of members and opportunities for the automotive specialty-equipment market, the Show set a natural stage for the Launch Pad participants.
“YEN originally created this program with the understanding that it’s designed to benefit the entire industry by raising awareness of emerging automotive professionals and developing young talent,” said SEMA Director of Networks Bryan Harrison. “With Launch Pad, we’re looking for the brightest innovators, inventors and entrepreneurs who are passionate about the automotive industry and would benefit from an industry-recognized platform to gain momentum. Over the last five years, we’ve had dozens of participants in every automotive aftermarket vertical you can think of, and many of these alumni have already become valuable contributors to SEMA initiatives and the industry as a whole.”
The process began for the contestants in the spring, when applications were collected from more than 100 eager industry members under age 40, each a leading executive such as president, CEO, COO, or vice president with ownership stake in their companies. A task force of volunteers, several of whom had been involved in Launch Pad in the past, considered each one before selecting 15 semi-finalists. Those individuals then made the trip to Las Vegas in June for the SEMA Show Exhibitor Summit—a boot camp of sorts for those new to the exhibiting experience—where they filmed pitch videos for social media. That part of the competition put the competitors’ digital marketing skills to the test, with votes collected by followers determining the 10 finalists who were invited to present at the SEMA Show. It was a banner year for the competition, with a total of 18,300 unique votes cast.
The live Launch Pad event took place the Monday before the Show opened. Each finalist was tasked with pitching his or her product to a panel of seasoned industry judges in front of a live audience. Ron Coleman of COMP Performance Group, TV personality Jessi Combs, Myles Kovacs of Dub Publishing Inc., Stacey David of Rattletrap Productions, and world champion drifter Vaughn Gittin Jr. evaluated each of the finalists on their presentation, concept and business plan. Not only did they grade the contestants, but they also offered their own perspectives about business opportunities and challenges.
“I get really excited to be a part of Launch Pad,” said Kovacs. “It’s innovative, and I look at it as getting an insight into what SEMA is going to be. First and foremost, [we are] looking at the idea and the execution of the idea. Then, is there a real marketplace for these particular products? We try to kind of grade on the likelihood [of the business working], and that’s usually the nail in the coffin for some of the competitors who have great ideas but maybe need to rework their business plan or find another application for their invention.”
Tom Burden was recognized as the 2017 Launch Pad winner for his Grypmat invention.
Ultimately, Tom Burden was named the winner for his Grypmat tool mat, and he earned a prize package of promotional materials along with $10,000 to be used toward the benefit of his business.
“As an entrepreneur, you look at how much it is to make the product and to protect it,” Kovacs said. “What’s market price? What’s the profitability, and is it something that can sell in multiple marketplaces besides just the automotive aftermarket? The Grypmat checked all those boxes.”
Hailing from the small town of Celina, Ohio, Burden is an F16 weapons mechanic in the Air National Guard. He invented Grypmat to keep his tools at his fingertips while working on a plane. The tool mats come in three different sizes, all made of a flexible, non-slip, rubberized material and designed to hold tools at up to a 70-degree angle on a curved surface.
With 20,000 units already sold, Burden is now looking to expand into new markets—namely, automotive applications. The product allows gearheads to set their tools down within reach without scratching body paint, and it gives them somewhere to set tools under the hood where they won’t blend in with the engine and get lost.
Reflecting on his Launch Pad experience, Burden said that the networking potential first drew him to the competition—and with more than 1,200 attendees at this year’s event, it definitely delivered exposure.
“I was really impressed by the judge lineup,” Burden added. “It was exciting to be able to network with some of those guys.”
Burden also began to notice the payoff from his promotional efforts, as visitors to his booth recalled seeing his product on social media, where he had worked hard to grow his network during the voting process. He said that fine-tuning his pitch was another valuable learning experience from the process.
“I’ve never had such a big, good response from any other show, ever,” Burden said, “so that was pretty exciting. I got a lot of really good feedback.” That included walking away from the Show with a SEMA Global Media Award from the U.K.’s Autosport Engineering.
In the future, Burden plans to continue expanding product lines, connecting with others in the automotive industry, and gaining momentum through the resources in the Launch Pad prize package, such as the complimentary booth at the 2018 SEMA Show.
“We are working with a lot of leading companies in the industry, so we hope to have all those relationships in full process by next Show,” he said. A few weeks after winning Launch Pad, Burden appeared on an episode of ABC’s “Shark Tank” and received funding from three of the sharks.
Along with Burden, the lineup of nine other Launch Pad finalists was quite impressive. Beyond the live event, each of the finalists exhibited in kiosks within a dedicated “Launch Pad Corral” in the Performance Pavilion, where they gained tradeshow experience and exposure to the 67,000 buyers in attendance. All of the finalists were also invited to participate in a roundtable event, where they met one-on-one with industry-leading retailers, manufacturers, reps, media outlets and warehouse distributors—another chance to ask questions and network with experienced, successful professionals.
The following pages offer a brief introduction to the finalists.
The Grypmat keeps tools organized under the hood and protects body paint from scratches.
Mike Alexander, Flo Airride Mfg.
Mike Alexander and his co-founder set out to reinvent air suspensions to be more attractive and customizable. Their V2 modular billet air tank can be matched to a vehicle’s wheel or body color, and the end caps can be mixed and matched to the tank body sleeve. A high-pressure safety relief valve was also added, with a 250-psi blow-off, and it’s flushed into the end cap so it remains hidden. Flo Airride added a 1/8-in. MPT fitting that can be plugged or used as a drain. A wide variety of port configurations were developed to help the overall form and function, and the tank incorporates modular end caps with a twist-lock design, allowing users to spring-release each end off the air tank without any tools.
Carl Borkholder, Gen-Y Industries
The Gen-Y adjustable torsion drop hitch has a built-in suspension that’s virtually maintenance free, according to owner Carl Borkholder. It’s designed to separate the truck from the trailer and therefore overcome inertia so that users do not feel the trailer on the back of the vehicle. With towing capacities having greatly increased in the last several years—now up to 21,000 lbs.—there’s a need for a suspension for those heavy loads. Inside the hitch, two rubber cords and an inner bar are compressed within an outer tube to create suspension. The rubber parts come with a 10-year warranty and can be replaced in minutes if they wear out.
The Gen-Y hitch is an alternative to airbag suspension hitches, which can blow while in use, Borkholder said.
Matt Corish, V12LS
Matt Corish and his co-founder debuted their V12 LS engine at last year’s SEMA Show Launch Pad competition. The product was designed to bring more customization to projects under the hood, and it garnered a great deal of attention, including being named Runner-Up Best Engineered Product in the 2016 SEMA New Product Awards.
This year, they returned to Launch Pad to introduce an engine-building kit, allowing users to build their own motor with off-the-shelf LS parts. The block is available in aluminum or cast iron, and the company makes the cranks from billet and grinds cams to custom specs. Options for heads are cathedral ports for around 800 hp, or LS7 style for more than 1,000 hp. Corish said that his team is excited to see what engine builders and machine ships can build on the platform their kit provides.
Gregor Hanuschak, Smack Innovations
Gregor Hanuschak’s SafeConnect clamps onto any steering wheel and allows drivers hands-free usage of almost every app already installed on their cellphones, all while keeping eyes on the road.
With SafeConnect, drivers can dictate and send text messages, make phone calls, get directions to the cheapest nearby gas station, or choose the songs they want to play through the car’s audio system. The deluxe model includes all of those features and adds a little fun to help drivers stay alert, with a sensor that lets them play drums on the steering wheel, adding beats to the music playing through the car’s speakers. SafeConnect pairs to phones using Bluetooth LE and connects to car speakers with Bluetooth, a mini plug or an FM transmitter.
Ben Horst, Eddy Motorworks
Eddy Motorworks was founded after Ben Horst and his co-founder built a hybrid electric racecar and realized the versatility of modern electric motors and battery systems. They also noticed limitations in the options available in the current EV market.
Today, their company builds custom electric cars and installs electric powertrains in existing vehicles. They’re also the creators of Electrocet—a commercially available electric racecar that is also road legal. The vehicle was a collaboration with Kevin Patrick of Exomotive, who was a 2016 Launch Pad finalist himself. The Electrocet is an open-cockpit, exoskeletal car that weighs about 2,000 lbs. and has a 0–60 time of under 3 seconds. The vehicle’s electric range is more than 250 miles on a single charge, and Horst and his co-founder are marketing it both to motorsports competitors and to those interested in electric vehicles.
A mechanical engineer, Horst said that his biggest challenges are the ins and outs of business management, patents, marketing and so on.
“Being part of Launch Pad and getting to interact with all of these other young entrepreneurs in the automotive space who are going through the same kinds of issues and challenges with marketing, or have already gone through them, is just a great help,” he said.
Brian Pierce, Delicious Tuning
Brian Pierce is the chief technical officer for Delicious Tuning, a manufacturer of advanced engine control calibration and plug-and-play flex-fuel conversion kits for high-performance vehicles.
Pierce explained that the Delicious conversion kit was developed after the team discovered the performance potential of ethanol and the challenge of figuring out what percentage they were getting at the pump, which could lead to engine damage.
The kit installs using factory connections and consists of an electronics module with a signal conditioner that will send a value to the engine’s computer from the ethanol sensor. With tuning, that signal can be used to adjust fueling, timing and boost, and cam angles to add performance.
Irina Slavina, Hudway
Another returner to Launch Pad for a second year was Irina Slavina, with Hudway. Hudway Drive is the company’s latest in portable head-up displays, compatible with any vehicle. The gadget mounts to the dashboard and projects a color image onto a transparent lens positioned in the driver’s line of sight. Paired wirelessly with a smartphone, it allows drivers to control navigation, music, phone calls and texts without taking their eyes off the road. A front-facing camera alerts drivers when they stop looking at the road for a few seconds.
While the product is not yet on the market, Slavina said that she’s hoping the exposure the company gained from Launch Pad will create demand.
“As a start-up, we’re looking for investors and partners, because our expertise is not only in creating head-up display devices but also in related software, user behavior and design,” she said.
Brock Templeman, Savior Products
Brock Templeman is president of Savior Products, a company founded by his father. It manufactures performance battery cases and trays to address the issue of premature battery failure due to shock and vibration. Originally designed for marine use, Savior has now expanded into off-road, street rods, late-model trucks and many other automotive applications. Savior offers a Pro case in a red powdercoat finish and an unfinished aluminum case that can be custom dipped or painted for project vehicles.
“Competing at this level of Launch Pad feels like a win,” Templeman said. “The exposure we’re getting and the brand awareness is crucial to shine a light on the brand and say this is a product that solves a problem and looks good doing it. Really, that’s what we wanted—that was our whole goal in being in Launch Pad, just to get more exposure for the Savior brand and start to transition into becoming a household name.”
Launch Pad participants were also invited to a roundtable event, where they met with representatives from key promotional outlets and distribution channels.
Ed Uehling, King Tailgates
King Tailgates’ concept was to make use of the space inside a tailgate that is typically unused.
KT1 is the first working prototype and opens to reveal seating, with removable cushions, backrests and top skins that are available in a host of different colors and patterns, along with a center console. The console includes cup holders, a removable waterproof Bluetooth speaker and a 12-volt USB charging port.
With the truck accessories segment continuing to grow, co-founder Ed Uehling is confident that there’s a broad market for the product. The company is currently targeting consumers ranging from sports fans and outdoorsy types to tradesmen who take their lunch breaks in their trucks.
It’s worth noting that this year’s Launch Pad participants are already enjoying praise for their work. Savior Battery Cases was a runner-up for Best Off-Road/4-Wheel-Drive Product in the SEMA New Product Awards, and Brock Templeman was also a 2017 SEMA News 35 Under 35 honoree.
In addition, while he didn’t make the top 10, semi-finalist Pete Gonzales was honored with the Emerging Trends & Technology Network’s Techie Award, and he was named the 2017 SEMA Gen-III Innovator of the Year. Gonzales is the COO of Darkside Scientific and creator of LumiLor light-emitting paint coating.
This sampling of young executives confirms an abundance of fresh ideas and passionate newcomers, all pointing toward a bright future as the specialty-equipment industry continues to evolve and move forward. The SEMA community will doubtless hear from these young leaders again soon.
Launch Pad continues the search for the next great business in 2018, with the application period set to open in early March. For more information about the program, visit www.sema.org/launch-pad.