Sean Petterson and Justin Hillery met in a college gym three years ago and immediately bonded. Both men loved working out, prided themselves as amateur inventors and had dads who suffered years of pain because of backbreaking jobs.
Fast forward three years, and their company, StrongArm Technologies Inc., has crafted two new "Ergoskeleton" products designed to protect blue-collar "industrial athletes" from injuries on the job; 3M has taken a minority equity stake in the company. The patented products, the FLx and V22, are a type of ergonomic vest or backpack designed to correct posture, support the back and shift weight to the hips, buttocks and legs.
"It's an ergonomic device that aids in lifting and carrying. It reduces fatigue and corrects posture" when lifting and moving product boxes, kegs, furniture and other heavy items, Petterson said. The V22 model "automatically tightens on those special areas of your body to take the load off your arms and [put] it onto your [lower body]."
Both products were displayed last week at the National Safety Council Congress & Expo in Atlanta. They won a New York Design Award last year and a Spark International Design Award in 2013.
The devices use no batteries, weigh less than 3 pounds and cost less than $1,000 each. They employ cords, pulleys and waist and shoulder supports made from high strength Dacron and ballistic nylon to help laborers protect their bodies while manually carrying hefty loads.
The products took three years to develop with help from 30 industrial and biomechanical engineers at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York and North Carolina State University.
Petterson and Hillery, who are both 25 and 2013 graduates of RIT, added their skills to the mix.
Soon StrongArm was more than an idea on paper and more than a single prototype.
Dozens of designs were tested, altered and winnowed down to two main products with input from beta testing construction workers and warehouse workers toiling in Target, Best Buy, 3M, Costco, Wal-Mart and other large warehouse and distribution centers.
Last month, 3M announced that it liked what it saw so much that it invested a minority equity stake in StrongArm.
"The StrongArm team combines a dynamic innovative spirit with a great industrial design ethos," said Dan Chen, director of 3M's business development unit in the 3M Safety and Graphics Business group. "We look forward to our work together in advancing worker safety."
With 3M's help, Petterson and Hillery envision their 11-employee start-up could sprout from its humble New York beginnings to the rest of the globe, especially in Europe.
Still, today there are fewer than 75 customers.
"We expect hockey stick type growth," Petterson said. "We have explosive growth right now as we are doing full [product] launches and are in the process of [preparing] another product during the first quarter of next year. We expect to see clients buy tens of thousands" of StrongArm devices as corporations work to reduce injuries and workers' compensation costs.
3M officials declined to discuss StrongArm's market potential or how much was invested. The Maplewood-based 3M may be best known for its Scotch tape and Post-it notes, but it recently invested big money to expand its personal protection equipment offerings.
3M makes earplugs, respirators, masks and goggles. This summer, the company acquired Capital Safety for $2.5 billion. Capital Safety makes harnesses and fall protection devices for construction, drilling and mining workers.
The acquisition, in the same sector as StrongArm, is the largest purchase in 3M's storied history.
In the United States, StrongArm products are expected to be attractive to factories and distribution centers where back injuries can be prevalent. Hillery and Petterson noted that U.S. work injuries produce an estimated $60 billion in lost time, wages and workers' compensation costs each year.
StrongArm will be competing with such established brands as Cattron Ergonomic Vest Harnesses, Aspen Summit back braces, Blackhawk! Duty Belts and Uline Universal Back Support Belts.
Petterson said there is room for StrongArm because the demand is great.
"There is a lot of hurting going on. It's incredible," he said. The goal is for StrongArm "to bring active workers home safely and to prevent injuries and pain."