Considering the stoner cred that Michael Phelps has thrust upon South Carolina in the past week, it's welcome news when the state's innovators are recognized for improving everyday lives. Like the Azula, an answer to the hundreds of thousands of expensive bikini bottoms tattered and turned to shreds each year along the edges of harsh, unforgiving swimming pools.
Julie McWerther has built an enterprise out of the Azula, a mat made of wetsuit material that rolls up, stays dry, and prevents bathing suits from getting torn up while sitting on the edge of the pool. McWerther took first place in the wild card category of the 2008 New Ideas for a New Carolina contest, which offers cash prizes and start-up assistance to creative entrepreneurs.
This year's winners will be announced at the ThinkTEC Innovation Summit, held at Trident Tech on Wed., Feb. 11. ThinkTEC is a day-long conference looking at South Carolina business and creativity, but the hallmark, fittingly, is the potential found in new innovators. The categories range from bioscience to environmental sustainability, but the wild card section always draws the most off-the-wall inventions. Actor Bill Murray and RiverDogs President Mike Veeck teamed up to pick their favorite, which will receive $2,500 in prize money to start their business.
Among the entries are a "DogAwning," by Julie Rogers of Charleston, which is designed to keep Fido from leaping out of a pickup truck (and also providing him shade). Another Charleston entrant, Barney Gaillard, created the "Leg-Avator," a lightweight, heavy-duty plastic platform with molded concave leg supports for bedridden hospital patients.
Ron Fulbright, a professor at the University of South Carolina's Upstate campus, won last year's grand prize for his use of nano-sensor technology to detect dangerous chemicals at disaster scenes. He's entered four inventions this year, including the "Spocket," an exterior pocket that uses magnets to attach to pocket-less clothing.
"With the recent chilly weather, I've been wearing fleece shirts, and I like sticking my hands in the pocket on the front," says Fulbright. "One day I had one on that did not have a pocket, and I kept trying to shove my hands into where it would be. I turned to my wife and said, 'You know what? I should be able to have a pocket anytime I want.'"
Another idea to make this year's top 10 is Stoney Krauses' customized glitter tile floors. The owner of a commercial janitorial company in Columbia, he had the idea of laying a design or emblem into a floor and sealing it with a wax that could easily be removed and replaced.
"If you're going to hold a big function, and say you're a Gamecock or Clemson fan, and you wanted to decorate your facility up pretty neat and kind of unusual, I could come out and basically customize imprints of a gamecock or tiger paw and put that design into the floor," says Krause. "It really is easy."
Other finalists include the "Daddie Caddie" (a stylish baby car-seat), the "BikeBack" (a GPS sensor to find stolen bicycles), and a hybrid between a surfboard and a skimboard that includes a removable handlebar to pull riders in as little as five inches of water and across sand.
Since winning last year's contest, Julie McWerther's swimsuit-saving Azulas are available in over 20 states, and their use has extended beyond poolside to any place that requires a temperature-controlled seat — from hot vinyl in cars and golf carts to chilly bleachers at little league games.
Even if he doesn't take the top prize, glitter tile man Krause says he'll pursue his business idea. Whether a creation fills a need or just makes life more enjoyable, the New Ideas contest demonstrates the wealth of innovators in our state. A ride on a surf/skimboard across the beach sounds pretty nice, and getting that bike back that disappeared on Upper King Street last month wouldn't be too bad either.