TAMPA — A pair of entrepreneurs with University of South Florida ties had hoped to make a splash at a prestigious Smithsonian Institution conference this weekend in Washington, D.C.
Unfortunately, the federal government hasn’t been keen on big ideas and creativity lately.
Merry Lynn Morris, a USF theater and dance academic advisor and inventor of the Rolling Dance/Mobility Chair, and Alexei Novitzky, a USF grad and inventor of the BriefSkate skateboard case, were informed this week that the conference they had been invited to — “Innovation: Brainstorms, Big Ideas, and the Creative Future” — would be going the way of the non-essential federal worker.
They were to be two of 13 presenters at the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries building Sunday on the National Mall, but the conference is a victim of the government shutdown.
Don’t wring your hands for the duo, who are taking the setback quite well.
“I don’t get disappointed,” said Novitzky. “I’ll continue to do everything I need to do, and if it happens, it happens, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”
Morris also shrugged off the cancellation.
“I was hoping that this would be a good networking opportunity, because I would be meeting others in different fields who are doing interesting and innovative things,” she said. “I was hoping to make some connections, get some more publicity.”
It’s to be expected that the pair are handling things so stoically. They’ve both been involved in the roller-coaster ride of bringing an invention to market — more than eight years in Morris’ case — and they have faith in their products.
Morris, a lifelong dancer who became a caregiver to her disabled father after a car accident, had been brainstorming for years about melding her passion for movement with improvements to the standard wheelchair. In 2005, she approached the engineering department at USF and sold them on the idea of helping her create a chair that would be more appropriate for a dancer.
And, she thought: Why stop at the stage?
“It’s never been my vision to limit it to dance,” Morris said. “My motivation for this device has come from my two worlds — my daily living experience as a caregiver with my mom, and my dance life.”
After years of engineering, testing, failing and succeeding, the result is the Rolling Dance/Mobility Chair, an omni-directional, smartphone-controlled power wheelchair.
The USF researchers tweaked the technology originally introduced in the Segway personal transporter, and are experimenting with different motor drives, gyroscopes and accelerometers.
The result is a chair that moves smoothly, without the hand propulsion or jerky joystick manipulation of a standard chair. Users control movement through their bodies, leaning back and forth and side to side, or through the tilt controls on a smartphone.
Dancers both young and old have raved about the equipment.
Vertec Inc., a Pensacola manufacturer, is licensed to help develop the chair. Morris hopes to have three prototypes completed within a year. They’ll be tested and used outside the laboratory for feedback.
Novitzky, an avid skateboarder, got frustrated skating around the USF campus as a student a few years ago.
Between his loaded backpack and beloved skateboard, he decided was carrying too much stuff. So he developed a foldable skateboard that would fit into his backpack.
“Those boards did not ride very well,” Novitzky said. “I then decided to put my books in my board. Those boards rode extremely well.”
His solution became the Skatecase, a skateboard that opens to hold a few of the tools a student or recreational skater might carry around — a book or two, tablet, sunglasses, phone, keys, wallet.
Patent specialists at USF steered him to the Startupbus, a project that sends busloads of entrepreneurs across the country to work on ideas as they converge on the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. He met new partners, built prototypes, and placed SkateCases in boutique skate shops.
The concept is now the BriefSkate, and he’s having discussions with a major manufacturer over a potential super-order of 100,000 boards.
Novitzky earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from USF in 2010, but isn’t the type for a desk job. He has been teaching martial arts, running a landscaping business, doing handywork, anything to keep him going towards his dream.
“Life’s not about making money,” he said. “It’s about pursuing what you want to do as an individual.”
USF has significant infrastructure in place to assist faculty and students in research and innovation. Its Technology Transfer Office for Patents and Licensing was established in 1990 to help commercialize university intellectual property.
“I think USF is a little bit unique in that it truly is an entrepreneurial university and has an environment that is open to people who are very innovative,” said Valerie McDevitt, the university’s assistant vice president for patents and licensing. “It’s not a place that says, ‘No, you can’t do this,’ it’s a place that looks to support faculty and students with these creative ideas that are a little bit off the norm.”
McDevitt has worked with both Morris and Novitzky. “I wasn’t surprised that they would be the ones that would be selected” for the Smithsonian event, she said.
USF is tops in the state in generating patents. Five professors and the head of the Moffitt Cancer Center were recently named charter fellows in the National Academy of Inventors.
Morris and Novitzky both have patents pending. The university and the two inventors would share in any royalties the BriefSkate or Rolling Dance/Mobility Chair would generate.
Until then, the two are carrying on with the typical duties of entrepreneurs: schmoozing, fund-raising, publicizing and fine-tuning their products. The Washington experience would have helped — time was built into the conference schedule for “mingling” — but Morris isn’t dwelling on it.
“It’s still an honor to have been asked,” she said. “I was surprised and thrilled to get that invitation. I think they were looking for some evidence of innovation such as this with a human interest side and a social justice side.”