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Innovative Alaskans.

In garages and on kitchen tables, from the Bering Sea to Southeast, your neighbors are busy building exciting inventions.

From motorized baby cribs to racks for growing mussels, ball caps to computer information systems, Alaskans are an inventive lot. Some have received U.S. patents, others have not. Some inventions have made it into the market place, while others remain in garage workshops. And like innovators everywhere, Alaska's creative types often are propelled by need, says Sudy Sanders, executive director of the Alaska Inventors and Entrepreneurs Association.

The association, started in 1988 by the University of Alaska Small Business Development Center and a group of local investors, has 82 members, and according to Sanders, is "definitely in a growth phase." She estimates that 90 percent of the association's members are in the "idea stage," with the remaining 10 percent either waiting to receive a patent or armed with one and ready to sell the world on their inventions. For most Alaskan inventors, the biggest obstacles are a lack of financing and a shortage of manufacturing outlets.

Sanders sees the association as a clearinghouse for those eager to put their ideas to work. Its office is full of resource materials, including a computer bulletin board that allows inventors and other interested individuals to share information, data on how to secure a patent and how to write a business plan.

Other organizations around town can help with marketing and business development. The Z.J. Loussac Public Library became Alaska's only patent depository in 1984, allowing would-be inventors the opportunity to scroll through patent records dating back to 1872. Trademark information dating from 1972 also is available.

Many inventors are right-brained, says Sanders, and hit a brick wall when it comes to marketing their creations. She encourages those individuals to find a partner willing to handle the nuts and bolts of the business while they retreat back to the drawing table and a second invention.

Opportunities for Alaska inventors are promising, says Sanders, especially for those interested in dabbling in high-tech areas. "I think Alaska is wide open for technology and information systems because that can be done anywhere," she says. "I think we're right where we ought to be."


Merle and Taffy Uscola have owned their small manufacturing business for five years. Taffy runs the office while Merle spends his days in their shop near the port of Anchorage coaxing rust-proof aluminum into river boats and skiffs. At least that's how it was until a customer wandered in a couple of years ago with a special request. He wanted a durable sled for hauling goods behind his snowmachine and wondered if Merle could make it out of aluminum. The experienced craftsman came up with a prototype, and the following year the Uscolas decided to test-market their all-aluminum design.

"What makes the sled different is that it lasts a long time and has skis, so that if you break through the ice, it floats and won't pull you and everything else down through the ice with it," explains Taffy.

Unfamiliar with buying patterns in rural Alaska, the Uscolas began marketing their sleds last winter. The couple sold 20 of their sleds before Christmas, four of them the first day they were offered through the Alaska Commercial Co. "Once we got our product out, it was selling really well," says Taffy.

The sleds come in two models and range in length from 6 feet to 10 feet. The 6-footer, which is the most popular size, can float a load of up to 400 pounds and retails for $995. This year the Uscolas, with the help of the University of Alaska Small Business Development Center, hope to market their sled throughout Alaska and Canada and also to the military and government agencies.

Taffy says that the couple could produce up to 1,000 sleds a season but has set a goal of selling 300 this year and doubling sales each following year.


As an observer for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Tony Gangi often spent long, tedious stretches aboard Bering Sea fish processors wishing he'd brought along a larger selection of video movies because conventional antennas don't pick up weak television signals effectively.

Looking for a solution, Gangi, a ham radio buff for several years, rigged a high-power antenna system capable of picking up even the weakest of signals.

"It was crystal clear," says Gangi of the television reception he was finally able to receive at sea, "just like cable TV. I knew that I had an idea."

Since then, Gangi has left the Department of Fish and Game and has spent a lot of time -- and $10,000 to $15,000 of his own money -- researching and designing the Mariner One omni-directional antenna. Measuring 11 inches by 8 inches, the device can be permanently mounted on the roof of homes, boats and motor homes to improve television reception. Tested for two years, a limited number of antennas are available through Aviation Electronics in Anchorage at a suggested retail price of $200.

"The potential for this business in the first 10 years is over $100 million," says Gangi, who is also writing an Alaska cookbook, the proceeds of which he plans to channel into the marketing of the Mariner One. "Just think of all the people out there who own RVs. If there's a signal out there, it will pick it up."

Gangi sees anyone who wants better television reception -- especially when on a ship at sea or traveling in a motorhome -- as a potential customer and hopes to market the device worldwide.


New Star Feeds, Kodiak

A few years ago commercial fisherman Mark Buckley got an idea at Kodiak's ComFish exhibition. It seemed odd, he thought, that Kodiak canneries dump tons of protein-rich fish scraps at sea, while area hatchery operators imported fish food from Outside. "Why don't we take the waste and turn it into fish food?" Buckley asked a state fisheries representative.

"That's a terrific idea," the man responded. "Why don't you apply for a grant and make it happen?"

"I trotted the idea around town and kept getting a favorable response," Buckley recalls.

But, would finicky salmon stock eat pelleted food made from cod and pollock instead of the herring-based food they were used to? And would they eat enough to grow fat and healthy?

With more than $500,000 in grants from the Kodiak Island Borough and the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation, and with local, in-kind support, including a test kitchen, Buckley was ready to find some answers. In the spring of 1991, he delivered his first batch of experimental "New Star" fish food to a salmon hatchery on neighboring Afognak Island.

After a six-week test feed, the results were very encouraging. Not only did the fish like their new diet but they were gaining weight. Last fall, another 10,000 pounds of New Star feed was shipped to the island hatchery and used to feed stock in one of two holding pens. By the end of winter, the test fish had gained more weight and were more uniformly healthy than those raised on traditional feed. In May, Buckley estimated that 7.5 million hatchery fish were now eating New Star feed.

So far, production has been on a pilot basis. Buckley says he now needs to determine the cost of production versus what his product could sell for and hopes to be up and running full steam ahead by next year.

"I know the initial things I need to know to hopefully make some wise business decisions," says Buckley, who estimates he spent more than $10,000 of his own money on the project. "I believe I have a formula that is among the best in the world."


As Stewart Smith, president of Alaska Frontier Archery, sees it, many people are ready to get back to basics. When it comes to archery, that means using a traditional longbow rather than the heavier, more cumbersome compound bows that became popular in the 1970s and '80s.

Thanks to the tireless tinkering of Wasilla resident Jack Harrison, transporting the traditional longbow has just become easier. Harrison, a longtime archery buff, spent the last dozen years perfecting plans for a longbow that can be taken apart and put back together again easily, accurately and without tools.

Stewart, an avid bow hunter himself, estimates that he and Harrison have invested more than $200,000 in the project. The Alaska Science and Technology Foundation also awarded the firm a $110,000 grant to test the feasibility of building such a bow, with another $175,000 grant approved to purchase the equipment necessary to compress cedar and Sitka spruce. The high-density wood will be used for making bows, arrow shafts and other items calling for forged wood.

This spring, Stewart estimated that Alaska Frontier Archery had already sold 200 of Harrison's handmade, takedown bows. An ad earlier this year in the magazine Traditional Archer brought more than 600 calls. By October, Stewart hopes to have a production schedule and a sizable inventory in place to meet demand. Frontier Archery has received calls from interested customers worldwide and has standing orders for three million arrow shafts, says Stewart.

The Wasilla-based company anticipates making 260 long bows in its first full year of operation, 520 the second and 1,040 the third. The bows retail for $750.

"They're as pretty as any piece of furniture in your house," says Stewart.

He adds that a patent is pending on the take-down design and that the technology used here has several applications, including use in two-piece cross-country skis.


Fairbanks wrestling coach and fitness buff Tom Ritchie was thrilled when mountain bikes first came on the market several years ago. Finally, he thought, he could hit the frozen rivers and back roads in comfort. He was wrong. "I've ridden bikes all my life," says the 40-year-old high school teacher. "All the bikes were uncomfortable. I wanted to ride in a comfortable position."

And so, like inventors everywhere, Ritchie began tinkering. When he was done, he had a bike that still looked like the traditional bike but was comfortable and "more orthopedically correct." The frame is short-coupled to reduce the distance between the seat and handlebars, and the seat tube leans back, allowing the rider to sit in a more upright position.

The result, says Ritchie, is a bike that doesn't force the rider to hunch over, causing neck, back and shoulder pain. "This position," says Ritchie, "is exceptional." The center of gravity is also a little lower, the chain stays between the bottom bracket and the back axle are longer and the frame is wide enough to accommodate extra-wide rims. He says the bike can easily carry a lot of weight, including camping gear and other equipment bikers often need on a long trek.

A limited number of his bikes, dubbed the Denali Alaskan, are currently being made by the American Bicycle Co. of Minnesota. Ritchie expects the rest to be sold by summer's end. By mid-May, he'd already sold half of his initial 150 bikes by word-of-mouth.

Ritchie's frames are made of light-weight yet durable aircraft aluminum and come in polished or anodized styles that retail for $720 and $925 respectively. All other components -- wheels, handlebars, seat and spokes -- are extra, resulting in a road-ready bike that could cost as much as $1,000 to $2,000. Ritchie plans to sell the frames himself and through local bike shops. "People will pay to be comfortable," he reasons.


The Roto Trimmer Inc., Homer

As a heavy equipment operator on Alaska's North Slope, Larry Beller saw the need for a machine that could cut through the permafrost and, at the same time, process massive chunks of debris into something usable. The equipment he envisioned had giant carbide teeth and worked like a garden roto tiller, but instead of turning over and loosening clumps of soil, it worked on frozen ground and other hard-to-work materials.

Beller found a partner willing to invest in his idea and with $35,000 scraped up between the two of them, the former Arco employee began building his first roto trimmer.

"It was immediately successful," says Beller, 51. In no time, he says, North Slope oil companies and contractors were renting the roto trimmer for use on cleanup sites as an efficient way to process material. The trimmer, which can be mounted on a grader, front-end loader or any other piece of heavy equipment, is able to work in temperatures as low as 50 below zero. Its giant teeth, which can be replaced individually, can process a variety of materials, including volcanic lava, shale, concrete, granite and limestone. It can level terrain and manufacture fill at the same time and, according to Beller, is cost effective and dependable.

DeVon Black, a heavy equipment coordinator for Arco, says the roto trimmer certainly has made working on the North Slope easier. The giant tiller is useful in chewing up frozen gravel, permafrost and pack ice used for roads. It's also effective in churning up weathered roadways and spitting out loose material for use in filling potholes. It has come in handy in bioremediation efforts where it's necessary to turn over large portions of soil and gravel.

After the success of his prototype, Beller built two more trimmers, took on two new partners, and in 1990 introduced the roto trimmer to the U.S. Forest Service in Missoula, Mont. Faced with replacing thousands of miles of worn-out logging roads, the service was looking for an easier, more economical way to rework the roads. The roto trimmer, dubbed by some as a "mobile rock crusher," was able to grind up what was left of the road and leave in its place gravel roads that will be usable for another decade.

As of this spring, Beller had four roto trimmers working on the North Slope, one chewing up roadways in Montana and one being built in an Oklahoma factory. Although the attachment may be custom built, the standard model is 10 feet wide and sells for $186,000. A patent for the attachment is pending.

Beller, who lives in Homer, figures that he and his two partners have invested about $300,000 on the roto trimmer, most of which they've recouped. He is encouraged by the attention his attachment has received and believes it's only a matter of time before the giant roto trimmers are chewing up material worldwide.


Goldstream Exploration, Fairbanks

Demands by environmentalists to reduce the amount of run-off left in rivers and streams by placer mining prompted Fairbanks engineer Tobe Larson to develop a more efficient mining system. Now, the same technology developed for use in Goldstream Mining's Mobile Placer Miner is being sought after and applied to the cleanup of environmental sites across the country. "There's a big demand for this technology," says Larson.

Nearly a decade ago, Larson formed Goldstream Exploration to develop innovative technologies for water recycling, land reclamation and energy efficiency, all of which would help increase the amount of gold recovered by Alaska's placer miners. During the next five years, Larson and his colleagues spent about $750,000 in private funds developing and testing various ideas. According to Larson, their research led in 1989 "to the development of a continuous mining system that was energy efficient, met or exceeded all environmental regulations, reduced the unit cost of gold production and eliminated stream effluent through 100 percent recycling of water."

In 1990, Goldstream received a $150,000 grant for design work from the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation. The following year, Larson formed Goldstream Manufacturing to begin building systems for Alaska miners. The prototype, which Larson says is about the size of two school buses, has been working for the last seven years at Gilmore Creek north of Fairbanks. The system, he says, has been very successful and has nabbed the attention of touring Chinese delegations, Russian visitors and radical environmentalists. The latter, says Larson, have walked away with a more favorable impression of placer mining.

According to Larson, Goldstream's mining system has several advantages. It requires far less fuel, less water and fewer employees to operate than conventional mining methods. As a result, it is well suited for mining in remote areas. Because it uses 90 percent less water than other systems, it's also ideally suited for use on "environmentally sensitive" ground or where water is scarce.

Although originally designed for use in placer mining, the technology involved in developing the continuous miner is also very much in demand for washing soil, says Larson. Large firms, including Westinghouse and General Electric, have wanted to do environmental cleanup, but their machines have failed, he says.

A year ago, the Department of Energy asked the Fairbanks inventor if his mining system could be adapted for use at cleanup sites. It could, and a small prototype is being used at a naval nuclear power plant in Tennessee. A model is also being built for Brice Environmental Services for use in cleaning lead out of the soil at a munitions site in Minnesota, and a system has been requested for use in cleaning uranium fragments from the Yuma Test Range in Arizona.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:unique business enterprises owned by Alaskans
Author:Hill, Robin Mackey
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Aug 1, 1993
Previous Article:Prejudice combats productivity.
Next Article:New hope for Alaska's housing market.

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