Wheeling High students take invention from class to business launch
Wheeling High School teacher John Kritek assigned his entrepreneurship class a simple exercise: name a problem, then think of the solution.
Then-juniors Ryan Caulfield and Martin Dimitrov went to their next class, physical education, still thinking about the assignment. As it happens, they were working in the weight room, struggling to keep the weights on their barbells to get clean lifts.
"We thought, there's got to be a better way to secure these weights," Dimitrov said. The metal clips, he said, bend out of shape or even break. At best, they are difficult to use and waste time.
From that moment of annoyance, the seed for SnapClips was born. In the past year, Caulfield and Dimitrov took their idea -- similar to a snap bracelet that can be worn around the wrist, but strong enough to wrap around a barbell and hold weights in place quickly and easily -- from the classroom to a real business that they hope will soon launch in gyms and homes everywhere.
Success didn't come easy.
The duo presented their idea at a DePaul University entrepreneurship contest. They finished dead last.
"That left a sour taste in our mouths," said Caulfield, of Prospect Heights, who is now a senior.
He and Dimitrov didn't have an actual product to show at DePaul, just an idea. So they got to work making a prototype.
By the District 214 Startup Showcase last May, Caulfield and Dimitrov had SnapClips to show off. This time they won first place, a $400 prize.
Between that and a $2,500 grant from Michael Miles, a Barrington resident and co-founder of Incubator EDU -- a program that encourages young entrepreneurs, the Wheeling High School students had the money they needed to incorporate an LLC and start manufacturing more SnapClips for testing.
They designed their own logo and got advice from business people and lawyers about how to best prepare for a product launch.
A Kickstarter fundraising page for their company has raised over $18,000 from more than 400 backers large and small. Many donors are from the Northwest suburbs, but backers also signed up from Australia, Germany, Singapore and the United Kingdom. Donors on the crowdfunding website get rewards for their investment - a letter from the founders or access to the product sooner than the general public.
"We knew it was going to be big, but we had no idea how big," Dimitrov said.
The students are working with CrossFit Arlington Heights and Athletic Barn in Wheeling to test and work out the kinks before the begin mass production.
But when the product is perfected, SnapClips already has thousands of orders from gyms lined up to fulfill. Individual weightlifters will be able to order a set of SnapClips for themselves, for $14.99.
"We don't consider ourselves students who came up with an idea in class," Dimitrov said. "We're businessmen and we take it a lot more seriously than people think."
Being so young, though, has gotten in the way of some of the logistics.
Dimitrov is the company's CEO, but at only 17, his name can't be on any of their official paperwork yet.
"It's kind of funny," he said. "Entrepreneurship isn't about whether you're 16 or 50, it's more about having the spirit of an entrepreneur."
They admit it can be hard to balance getting the product ready for launch and finishing high school with participating in sports, time with friends and planning for the future.
Most of Northwest Suburban High School District 214's six high schools now have entrepreneurship classes, but teacher John Kritek said that Caulfield and Dimitrov are his first students to actual create a business out of it.
"I've never seen students so motivated in my life," Kritek said. "It's inspirational for the other students in the class. It's been such a fun year watching them grow and progress."
Caulfield and Dimitrov hope to raise about $30,000 on Kickstarter and start shipping SnapClips this summer. Beyond that, they hope to keep finding problems and creating solutions, just like they learned in Kritek's class.
"I knew I wanted to go into something in business, but I didn't know what," Caulfield said. "This class helped me figure it out."
"This class gave me the passion. I fell in love with entrepreneurship and this is what I want to do. I want to be a serial entrepreneur," he said.