Bright ideas

Inventive minds offer new solutions for construction, medicine – and beer pong

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Print this page by Tim Loughran

Move over, Thomas Jefferson, and you, too, Cyrus McCormick. Make room for Matthew B. Webb and Robert L. Kent III.

Schoolchildren all over the nation learn that Rockbridge County-born McCormick revolutionized the harvesting of grain in the 1830s with the world’s first horse-drawn reaper. And that Albemarle County’s Jefferson — while most famous for being the author of the Declaration of Independence and doubling the size of the United States with the $15 million Louisiana Purchase — is credited with helping to invent many things, including a machine to decode secret messages, the swivel chair, a farm plow that helped reduce soil erosion, the first mechanical handwriting duplicator and a macaroni machine. 

In October, Webb and Kent, two 30-something inventors from Henrico County, were awarded U.S. Patent 7,805,959 for a device that had eluded the skills (but not the imaginations) of millions of university students during decades of intense (often nightly) intercollegiate competition: a product that can keep cups and glasses frosty throughout even the longest game of beer pong. “We saw a problem that needed a solution — and that’s what we did,” says Kent.

The inventors are an off-beat example of the entrepreneurial spirit that continues to drive innovation in factories and laboratories throughout in the commonwealth. 
Virginia has lost dozens of factories during the past decade to rivals in other states and countries, and about 40,000 manufacturing jobs have disappeared since the “Great Recession” began in late 2007. Nonetheless, Brett Vassey, president of the Virginia Manufacturers Association (VMA), says Virginia companies continue to launch products that identify problems and create solutions.
Here’s a sample:

LiteSteel Technologies, Troutville

This U.S. subsidiary of Australia’s OneSteel Ltd. began producing its trademarked LiteSteel construction beams less than two years ago in a 250,000-square-foot factory outside Roanoke.

The product, according to senior vice president Scott Morling, weighs (and costs) about 40 percent less than traditional steel beams. LiteSteel beams are the brainchild of the parent company’s structural tubing division. Its engineers discovered after some experimentation that connecting two small steel tubes with a thin, flat plate yielded a new product that could outperform many forms of engineered wood because it’s much more rigid per square inch. The beams can be used for a variety of construction projects ranging from roofs and staircases to subflooring.

Currently, sales across the hot, humid Southeast are rising because of LiteSteel’s resistance to mold and termites. The company also is beginning to see “a lot more interest” from West Coast construction companies, which, because of that region’s seismic instability and stricter building codes, “are more comfortable” using steel in the houses and offices they build, Morling says.

Health Diagnostic Laboratory Inc., Richmond

Tonya Mallory, president and CEO, says her 18-month-old blood-screening laboratory has budgeted “about $2 million” to design, patent, produce and ultimately commercialize three new products for chronic cardiac diseases. They are expected to complement the sophisticated tests her growing staff of scientists and technicians now use in various proprietary combinations to assess patients for early-warning traces of diabetes, fatty liver disease, metabolic syndrome or different forms of heart diseases.

Currently working with more than 1,000 doctors nationwide, HDL’s staff of “health coaches” provides tested patients with personalized follow-up treatment plans designed to prevent initial hints of disease from getting worse. Patients’ progress is monitored quarterly or semi-annually with additional blood screenings. For too long, Mallory says, American physicians have relied on annual blood screenings that raise warning signs only after a disease has developed to dangerous levels.  “While most laboratory companies limit their work to identifying the products of a disease, we’re looking for the causes,” she says.

HDL announced in late October that it is investing $4.2 million in its operations at the Virginia BioTechnology Research Park, creating 213 jobs.

Starr Hill Brewery, Charlottesville

Now serving customers from Tennessee to Florida with nine beers bearing names like “Lucy,” and “The Gift,” Starr Hill Brewery was started in September 1999 by native son and James Madison University graduate Mark Thompson. He learned the “craft brewing” business in Oregon and Colorado after college.

With almost 50 craft breweries now operating across the commonwealth (in restaurants, bars and in larger factories), the industry is one of Virginia’s manufacturing success stories, says Vassey of the VMA. Fueled by steadily rising consumer demand and declines in the costs of grains and machinery, America now has almost 1,600 commercial brewers, and all but a handful are classified as “craft-” or “micro-” brewers. That’s more than any time since Prohibition shut down hundreds of local breweries across the country.

During the first six months of this year, as overall beer volume dropped almost 3 percent, volume at U.S. craft breweries rose by 9 percent and revenue jumped by 12 percent. In dollar terms, craft beer sales rose by 10 percent annually in both 2008 and 2009. “In this economy, especially with Generation X and Gen Y drinkers, craft beer is seen as one of the last affordable luxuries,” says Thompson. “The future looks very bright for craft beer in Virginia, and rising consumer demand is driving that.”
Speaking of beer, two of Virginia’s newest product developers want to call their new invention The Pongerator.

Webb and Kent, close friends since middle school, got the idea for their beer-pong refrigeration system on a typically hot and humid Central Virginia summer afternoon in 2006. After a sweaty, dusty session of yard work at Webb’s bungalow in Highland Springs, the pair began discussing plans for that evening’s entertainment.

“We heard that a friend was having a beer pong party … and we got to talking,” says Kent. “I told Matt: ‘I love beer pong, but I hate having to drink hot beer’ … We talked a little bit more about what we could do to keep the beer cold during games ... and then a light bulb went off in both our heads.”

During the course of the next few days, after searching the Web for variations of “beer pong” and “cup holders” and finding nothing listed, the pair began bouncing around ideas of creating a triangular plastic tray with multiple indentations big enough to hold 16- to 20-ounce glasses or plastic cups, similar in design to trays used to store and carry billiard balls. (Beer pong primarily involves tossing Ping-Pong balls across a table into cups of beer.)

“The key was designing something that would keep the glasses cold and also keep them from tipping over …  Some games [of beer pong] can get pretty rough,” says Kent with a laugh.

To test their theory and with the help of a few friends and former classmates from Varina High School, they built a prototype from cardboard, a plastic garbage bag and a few inches of tap water and put it in the kitchen freezer. “Not only did the beer stay cold, it got even colder the longer we had it at room temperature,” says Webb.

So far the pair — who constantly tease each other and frequently complete each other’s sentences — have spent a total of about $8,000 on lawyers and fees to the U.S. Patent Office. Over a recent dinner, they discussed the serious business of how they would get their invention made, where they would sell it and possible marketing slogans. Offers Webb, “It’s pretty simple: Beer pong is part of American culture. Every man needs The Pongerator.”

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