You never know where the next big idea will come from. Just ask the folks at JayPro, a sports equipment maker based in Waterford.
Dr. Arthur Kreitenberg views himself as an inventor. The California-based board-certified orthopedic surgeon even has five U.S. patents to verify it, mostly in bioengineering-related fields. It was while watching his daughter play volleyball that the genesis for his latest innovation struck.
"What [volleyball players] do is lick their hands and then rub the bottom of their shoes for traction," he said, noting that the spread of germs in sports, particularly in volleyball where this practice is common, triggered the idea for the Germninja.
The Germninja uses ultra-violet light to sanitize sports balls. While volleyball was the inspiration for Kreitenberg, the system can sanitize nearly any type of ball.
Kreitenberg had the idea and the patent for the Germninja, what he didn't have was a manufacturing and marketing partner. That's when he contacted JayPro Sports.
"We have the engineering design and capability to take a design and [manufacture it]," said Bill Wild, CEO of JayPro. "We've fielded a lot of these calls over the years. Sometimes there's a gem in there."
JayPro is hoping that the Germninja, which is already being used by the U.S. Olympic volleyball teams, is that next gem. Kreitenberg's invention is expected to be just the latest in a long line of successes for the 60-year-old JayPro, which specializes in institutional sports equipment.
Originally called JayFro, the company's first product of significance was the metal basketball net — the same net that is still found today on playground basketball hoops across this country. Lightweight volleyball equipment, soccer goals and more have followed in the years since.
"When you sell to institutions, they expect to get a product that is going to last," Wild said, adding that the company sells almost exclusively to institutions such as parks departments, schools, YMCAs and the like.
With approximately 1,000 products in its lineup, the company's offerings are diverse, but they have all been tied to a single principle — innovation.
Despite its six decades of success, though, there were times when reaching this milestone seemed unlikely. When Bob Ferrara, the current owner and chairman and Wild's uncle purchased JayFro Sports in 1986, it was a rescue of sorts. According to Wild, the original owner was sick and not able to manage the firm. Ferrara's purchase gave JayFro a second life.
Then came the savings and loan crisis in the early 1990s.
"Bob almost lost the company early '90s," Wild said. "They had to scramble to get some long-term financing together, which they did."
In 1996, Ferrara changed the name of the company to JayPro to reflect the company's entrance into the "custom (new) school construction" market. That market, Wild said, provided a profitable opportunity for JayPro with the accompanying economic boom, but it didn't last.
"We saw the school construction market becoming overcrowded [with competitors] and schools taking the lowest bid," he said. "We saw that ahead of time and made the decision to stop manufacturing that custom line [in 2008]. We made a deal with a competitor to produce that line."
As it turned out, the timing for such a move was perfect. With the recession about to hit the economy full force, school construction dried up, and with it, much of that market. Timing is important in both sports and in business.
"Obviously, we made that deal at the right time as the economy was about to crash," Wild said.
For JayPro Sports, the timing always seems to work out, and even during the recession the company found a profitable path. In fact, JayPro has not had a losing financial quarter since Ferrara purchased the company, and that is due in part to the 100 or so employees, Wild said.
"It's a tribute to my uncle who created an atmosphere that people want to work in," he said. "Having loyal employees allows us to change. I think that employee group deserves a lot of credit for allowing us to have success."
Wild, who started with JayPro in 2002 as executive vice president with a focus on marketing and sales before stepping in as CEO about three years ago, will hand over the reins to Ferrara's son Michael next year. When that changeover occurs, he will slide back into his role in marketing and sales. But before that happens, JayPro, under his guidance, will take another stab at finding the next Germninja though its recently announced "Innovation Challenge."
"We've made a business out of making and marketing innovative products," Wild said. "And we want to give everyone the chance to [harness] our design and manufacturing capabilities."
The company will accept "Innovation Challenge" product ideas until July 1. Any idea is welcome and you do not need to be an inventor to participate, Wild said. In fact, you don't even need a patent, only an idea.
"We have a team we're putting together to evaluate the entries," Wild said. "Hopefully, we'll have at least one product to produce.
"The idea is to bring the inventor along, either through royalty, licensing or buying the patent outright," he added. "The key to our success has been innovation [and listening] to our customers. And that's what brings us to the Innovation Challenge. Sometimes [great ideas] come from the field."
Applications and more information on the Innovation Challenge are available online at www.jaypro.com/innovation.