Constable: Palatine grads turned smelly gym bags and a class project into a business
A business incubator class Drake Roberts and Anthony Tamras took their senior year at Palatine High School gave them an idea, disrupted their college plans and changed their lives. Now, after five years of research and development, the 23-year-olds have turned that idea into a growing company that sells a compact, recyclable, plant-based air deodorizer called DeoBlock.
On Friday, the pair will return to that Palatine High School classroom to explain the details of their business to the class taught by Cliff Watanuke, department chair of business education, and the teacher who launched that first business incubator class during the 2015-16 school year.
"It was incredibly impactful for me to hold their product in my hands. It was a career moment for me. It represents passion and perseverance," says Watanuke, who notes the class is like a "backstage pass" into the business world.
The original assignment was to identify a problem and develop a solution. For Tamras, a wide receiver on the football team, and Roberts, who played forward for the lacrosse team, the answer was right under their noses.
"We came up with DeoBlock because we both had bad odors coming from our equipment bags," Tamras says.
"Do your parents yell at you about your gym bag smelling in the car?" Roberts remembers asking.
The products they had been using in an attempt to get rid of the smell simply tried to overpower the stink with a new smell.
"That was unpleasant. It didn't solve the problem and might have made it worse," Roberts remembers.
Determined to find the "value proposition" for their business idea, the pair spent many hours at a Panera Bread near their homes in Palatine, hammering out ideas. They decided they wanted a reusable and recyclable deodorizer made from a plant-based gel infused with essential oil scents.
Getting guidance from the professional business sources who volunteered in their classroom, the team developed a prototype and used the school's 3D printer to make it. Their product made it into a Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 contest as a wild-card entry, joining the winning entries from Conant, Fremd, Hoffman Estates, Schaumburg and Palatine high schools.
"We didn't just say people will be interested. We went out and got people interested," Roberts says.
"We could hit the ground running," Tamras says. "We were able to handle all their questions."
On May 23, 2016, DeoBlock won the districtwide pitch competition and a $25,000 grant to develop the business.
"In high school, when you win 25 grand, everyone thinks you're a millionaire," Tamras says.
What happened next changed their lives forever. Tamras was set to study business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Roberts was attending orientation before starting his freshman year at Indiana University when he phoned Tamras.
"How are we going to do this if we're miles and miles apart?" Roberts asked.
"I'll never forget that call. We were on the phone for a few hours," Tamras says.
By the end of their conversation, they agreed to stay home, take classes at Harper College and work on the project. As full-time students holding down several part-time jobs, including working as janitors for the park district and a fitness club, and delivering pizzas, they spent all their free time developing DeoBlock. They graduated from Harper with associate degrees in 2018 and finished their bachelor's degrees in 2020 at DePaul University. On the fifth anniversary of their big high school victory, they launched their company at DeoBlock.com.
"Sales are way up," says Roberts. They recently landed a deal to provide DeoBlock cubes with the Huskies logo for every locker used by the Northern Illinois University football team. They have deals with local gyms and other schools, and they can customize the deodorizers to include company and school logos.
Their friendship often takes a back seat to their business partnership.
"We're going to have fun, and then I come over and we're counting inventory," Tamras says.
"It's hard for us to hang out and not do business," Roberts acknowledges.
Right now, the company basically is running "out of my parents' basement," Roberts says, noting there is an upside to that. "It smells fantastic."