Guest commentary: Keith Gibson ... Ramping it up

The AquaRamp lifts physically challenged people into and out of pools.

The AquaRamp lifts physically challenged people into and out of pools.

It’s a story of innovation and ingenuity: Identify a need, brainstorm, test concepts, build a prototype, sell the idea and begin production and distribution.

But this story gets better.

The product has game-changing potential. It gives disabled people independence in therapeutic exercise. It’s cost-saving for advocates dependent on donations to help those people.

There’s more.

The bright minds that birthed this invention win the Florida Venture Forum Statewide Business Plan Competition in Orlando — outthinking, outplanning, outperforming and just plain outworking bigger, longer-established peers.

And the best part?

This story evolved at Florida Gulf Coast University, where along the path between Holmes and Lutgert halls, collaboration between the U.A. Whitaker College of Engineering and Lutgert College of Business formed a unique team of two forward-thinking professors and enterprising students.

“That’s what makes this special,” said a still-excited Sandra Kauanui, chair of the management department and director of the Institute for Entrepreneurship. “It opens business students to the engineering world, and engineering students to the business side. They learn to work as a unit.”

Kauanui partnered with Lisa Zidek, associate professor of bioengineering, to create an environment in which students could meet a challenge posed by an expressed need of Goodwill Industries. Their solution: the AquaRamp, a track-mounted chair that lifts disabled people in and out of pools with a crank system that’s safer, easier to operate and cheaper than current models.

After the AquaRamp plan advanced through campus competition, it received financial support from Bud Stoddard, a Naples businessman, self-described “coach” for FGCU business students and a Tamiami Angel Fund director. The project didn’t meet criteria for Angel Fund backing to send the team to Orlando, but Stoddard pulled out his own wallet and persuaded several peers to do likewise, raising the $3,000 necessary.

“Not only is it a great business model, but the product helps people who need it,” Stoddard said.

In May, Kauanui and Stoddard accompanied the six-student team to Orlando, where, like proud parents, they watched FGCU team presenter Robby Donnelly “knock it out of the park,” as Stoddard put it, going up against teams stacked with graduate students from Florida, Florida State, Miami, South Florida, Central Florida and Rollins.

Now, the students want to take their patent-pending AquaRamp into the marketplace. They’ve set up a company, Dynamic Reach, and are looking for a local manufacturer to produce their Americans With Disabilities Act-compliant invention, which they plan to sell for $3,000 — after they “donate the very first one to Goodwill,” according to senior bioengineering major Scott Kelly, the company’s senior design officer. Similar devices on the market cost up to $10,000.

Most significant is that where current pool ramps require up to three people to operate, “Anyone with functional use of their arms can operate our ramp,” Kelly said. “It gives them more independence.”

The win-win deal also opens the students themselves to independence by expanding their classroom project into a real business.

“The contest wasn’t an end, but a means,” said senior civil engineering major John Baker, Dynamic Reach’s CEO.

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