Mark Little was dying from lung disease and passing time with his son, Jeremy, in a quiet game of cribbage.
For 10 years, the two had worked elbow-to-elbow to design and prototype a new kind of pontoon boat. But some time after Mark was diagnosed in 2010, the project was put on hold. Now, in March 2014, Mark was in his final days. He stopped the cribbage game, removed his oxygen mask and pointed to their backyard workshop in Oakdale.
“Our hearts are in there,’’ Mark Little said to his son. “When I’m gone, don’t give up on our dream.’’
Starting Thursday at the 2017 Minneapolis Boat Show, the dream will be rigged with a 225 hp Mercury outboard and Jeremy’s sales team will be taking their first orders. The pontoon invention that Jeremy carried to the finish line features an inseparable, retractable trailer. The boat detaches from its tow vehicle automatically, then expands like an accordion at the push of a button to a remarkable width of 11.5 feet. The starting price is $68,900.
If you talk to Jeremy, an undergraduate student at the University of St. Thomas, he’ll tell you that his father-son creation could revolutionize the luxury pontoon industry. His business adviser and friend, St. Thomas Associate Dean of Entrepreneurship Brian Abraham, is bullish, but more down to earth.
“I certainly like his odds,’’ Abraham said. “He’s absolutely not your typical undergrad.’’
As a professor, Abraham reads thousands of plans for start-up businesses. Jeremy’s plan was uncommonly good and his enthusiasm was off the charts.
“To be a good entrepreneur you have to have passion,’’ Abraham said. “That’s half the battle because there’s going to be hard times.’’
A member of North St. Paul’s high school class of 2001, Jeremy Little drifted into jobs after graduation that paid his bills. His grandfather had started a highly successful office cleaning company in the Twin Cities and his dad was a skilled craftsman and inventor — once designing a kit to convert motorized three-wheelers into four-wheelers.
In the back of Jeremy’s mind, he wanted to be his own boss. He latched onto his dad’s idea to invent a boat, then worked hours and hours of overtime at North Star Steel to pour money into their project.
The first prototype came together in 2008, a steel and wood model they displayed at the boat show simply to gauge public reaction. When 30 people offered to buy the floor model, they believed they had a winner.
Unique Pontoons was essentially born and the Littles began their quest to go into production with an all-aluminum boat they considered to be the widest pontoon on the market that can legally be trailered on the road. Minnesota requires boats to be less than 8.5 feet wide when transported.
Mark Little had painstakingly drawn the boat’s engineering plan down to every nut and bolt. After he died, Jeremy made a splash with the concept at St. Thomas, winning the Fowler Business Challenge and attracting investment from the university’s William C. Norris Institute. The institute paid to get the boat reverse-engineered and documented for patents. Then, in 2015, the Littles’ boat won the 2015 Minnesota Inventors Congress Innovation Expo. The pontoon won Grand Prize, People’s Choice, Best Working Model and Gold Medallion — the first such sweep at the convention in 58 years.
Jeremy said he’s now in the midst of finding assembly space. His parts suppliers are lined up (with redundancy), his sales team is in place, a bank has provided working capital and highly regarded Supreme Marine of Minneapolis has agreed to handle the power rigging.
The business is still embryonic, but Abraham said Jeremy’s plan is workable without having to overextend himself financially. The professor said the company’s biggest challenge is gaining sustainable market penetration.
“He’s ready to build. That’s for sure,’’ Abraham said.
“I promised my dad I’d do everything it takes to go into production,’’ Jeremy said. “It’s going to happen.’’