On top of his mechanical engineering studies at the University of Toledo, Tom Burden was wrenching on F-16 Fighting Falcons as an Air Force Reserve mechanic with the 180th Fighter Wing in Swanton.
While on duty, he stumbled into a frustrating issue: When not in his hand, his tools would slide off the jet and clatter to the ground.
“I decided I wanted to solve the problem,” Mr. Burden said.
So he did.
Mr. Burden spent three years developing his rubberized non-slip tool organizer through a process of trial-and-error. He ended up with a tray that’s flexible, static-resistant, non-magnetic, easy-to-clean, and able to cling to surfaces at up to a 70-degree angle.
He’s now sold upward of 20,000 units. His company, Grypshon Industries, raised more than $100,000 on Kickstarter, and just this month won top prize at the Specialty Equipment Market Association Launch Pad competition in Las Vegas.
But there are even bigger things afoot for Mr. Burden, now 27.
In June, he had the opportunity to pitch his Grypmat to a panel of deep-pocketed investors on ABC’s Shark Tank.
“We filmed, and even afterwards I really didn’t feel like it was real,” he said in an interview last week. “For years I’ve envisioned myself being on stage, and it was just kind of crazy.”
The episode featuring his product airs Sunday. Because of confidentiality rules, Mr. Burden can’t yet say how he did, but he is hosting a watch party in Columbus, where he now lives.
His path to becoming an inventor and entrepreneur is both unique and familiar.
Like many other successful businesspeople, he saw a problem and quickly realized no one else had come up with a viable solution.
“Some of the best inventions come from that, come from people who are doing their job and in that job realize that there’s a problem and nobody’s solving it. So they solve it. And that’s what Tom did,” said Jessica Sattler, director of economic engagement and business development programs at UT.
Grypshon Industries was one of the first clients in the university’s LaunchPad Incubation program, and Mr. Burden won the center’s Pitch and Pour competition as a student in 2014, the same year he graduated from UT.
Ms. Sattler, who worked with him at business incubator, described Mr. Burden as a likeable person who had good knowledge of the industry he was targeting and an incredibly focused work ethic. But she also said he did well taking advantage of what help the incubation center could offer.
“He was just really, really dogged about utilizing and leveraging those resources,” Ms. Sattler said. “And I think that’s a message people need to hear. These are here for you. Do what Tom did. What made him special above the rest was his own determination. But I think what also gave him an edge are the resources he utilized.”
After graduation, Mr. Burden, who grew up in Celina, Ohio, started traveling to trade shows as he worked on perfecting the Grypmat. He’d try to take pre-orders through the day and write applications for grant funding at night. He barely had enough money to eat while on the trade show circuit, so he’d work through lunch and scout out evening events that offered free hors d'oeuvres.
But he kept at it and caught a big break at last year’s EAA AirVenture airshow in Oshkosh, Wis., one of the largest aviation gatherings in the country.
He took 600 Grypmats. He sold them all.
Then he sold his house.
“It really took off. I had a lot of confidence in the product so I sold my house in Toledo to get more money for inventory,” he said. “I was basically living out of my car couch surfing for a while.”
The Kickstarter campaign, which went live in January, had a target of $10,000. The company ended up taking in more than $113,000 and catching the eye of Shark Tank’s producers.
Though the original idea was specifically to design a tool mat for airplane mechanics, Grypshon Industries has since positioned its Grypmat more broadly.
“I was always really confident in the product. One thing that I didn’t anticipate is how many markets can use the product,” Mr. Burden said. “We’re moving the product into not just aviation, but a tool management product. Anywhere someone’s trying to keep organized or keep their tools from falling, that’s basically our customer focus.”
The products are available on Amazon, through Summit Racing Equipment, and on a number of specialty aircraft supply websites. Mr. Burden said he’s also in discussions with other major retailers.