Appleton inventor uses Fab Lab to bring ideas to life

Like many innovators, Brian Davis got the idea for a new product — and business — after failing to find what he needed elsewhere.

Davis, an Appleton resident and avid cyclist, was looking for a tool to help him quickly and easily make repairs. When he could not find one, he connected with the Fox Valley Technical College Fab Lab, a small-small workshop offering digital fabrication that’s an outreach of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms.

Staff members and others at the FVTC FAB Lab helped Davis turn his idea into a reality: Fix It Sticks tools for bicycles.

“When I get annoyed with something, I try to come up with a solution,” Davis said. “Everyone has ideas, but so few people push it all the way through the end.”

The Fix It Sticks debuted in 2013. Since then, he’s brought two other ideas to the Fab Lab experts, who helped him develop two additional products — the Backbottle hydration bottle and the Weatherneck System balaclava.

The Backbottle is a water bottle designed to allow endurance athletes to easily access the bottle in and out of their jersey pocket. The Weatherneck system features a unique magnetic design that includes a hat, facemask, neck gaiter and balaclava, which means users can peel off the facemask or neck gaiter if the user gets too warm.

Davis said being an entrepreneur and inventor is not easy. There was a lot to think about and consider as he developed products and brought them to market. One area really surprised him: Finding companies willing to manufacture his products.

“It was challenging. I am sure they do not know how the product will sell and do not want to take the risk,” Davis said. “But, I kept at it. Getting in front of people with the product and showing them how it works was important.”

Prototype in hand and manufacturing underway, Davis took his knowledge as a sales rep in the package shipping industry to start promoting and shipping the new product.

“People would see me use it or another cyclist and word really spread about them,” Davis said. “It’s a challenge since all my products are unique. I have to educate customers about how they are used.”

For help along the way, he tapped into 1 Million Cups, a weekly gathering of small business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs who get together to share ideas. The nationwide 1 Million Cups initiative was founded by the Kauffman Foundation and is designed to spark local business growth. FVTC’s Venture Center helped launch Appleton’s 1 Million Cups program in October 2015.

After developing the Weatherneck, he made a presentation to the 1 Million Cups group.

“I had been to other presentations and knew members provided great feedback. After my presentation on the Weatherneck, someone in the audience said, ‘Oh, it’s like a bandana.’ That observation helped me as I defined my product and tailor the marketing message,” Davis said.

Davis used two Kickstarter campaigns to sell $70,000 in pre-orders for the Weatherneck, which is the first of his products that reaches beyond cyclists. “This is a product anyone outside in our great Wisconsin weather can benefit from,” he said.

Davis has since sold Fix It Sticks, with another company now making and selling the products. He continues to promote and sell the Backbottle hydration bottle and Weatherneck System.

“I sell them on the website and at local bike stations and word gets around and then others come forward, wanting to sell them at their store,” Davis said.

–By MaryBeth Matzek