The night before students in the Monroe County startUP program needed to select a business idea, Jacob O’Connor had nothing.
The Columbia High School junior had an idea for a technology, but that did not pan out.
He eventually came up with an idea for a seat cushion, the prototype for which was a yoga ball strapped to a truck seat.
O’Connor worked on the idea over the next several months, earning the program’s Entrepreneur of the Year award for his efforts.
“It was awesome,” the 17-year-old said of the award. “That had been my goal throughout the year, but obviously when you’re in this class you’ve got a bigger goal. You’re trying to find something you want to do in the future and chase your passion. But I figured if I won this award, it would show myself that I’m on the right path for what I want to do in the future.”
The award recipient is chosen by the program’s board members using a combination of a rubric from the class trade show and the students’ knowledge and progress throughout the class.
The program is designed to prepare students to be responsible, enterprising individuals who become entrepreneurs or entrepreneurial thinkers and contribute to economic development and sustainable communities.
O’Connor, the son of Columbia School Board Member Greg O’Connor and his wife Anita, saw several benefits to joining the class last fall.
“There’s always the fact that you’re out of class for two hours,” he joked. “I liked the aspect of being able to meet people. And the fact that it was real-world experience was something I wanted to take advantage of.”
Once O’Connor had his idea in early January, he began improving it.
At first, he felt frustrated because he wanted to succeed with his business and did not see potential in a seat cushion.
Then, Monroe and Randolph County startUP facilitator Jamie Matthews helped change his mind set.
“The more I dug, the more I figured things out and optimistically looked at it with the point of view that I could have potential with this, the more, from my perspective, things started to change,” O’Connor recalled. “The reality of it is there’s good marketing potential with this.”
The yoga ball soon became a bag full of balloons.
With the help of a Belleville company called Permobil that makes wheelchairs and power wheelchairs, the bag of balloons evolved to a cushion made of foam and patented air cell technology.
O’Connor began working with Permobil after his mentor in the class, Joe Koppeis, suggested the business and helped enlisted its assistance.
“He’s not able to give a lot of time, but when he does it’s everything you can fit in there,” O’Connor said before offering “a big thank you” to Koppeis.
O’Connor soon started meeting with Permobil twice a week every week since February. The company lent him materials and made his prototypes for free, but O’Connor completed the design work himself.
“They really got me off the ground in the aspect of they gave me what I needed to start marketing this,” he said of Permobil. “They were very helpful but they made sure I was pulling my end, which I happily did.”
O’Connor’s business, OC Projects, is now marketing the product Permobil helped him make: The Perfect Posture Protector, or 3P.
This seat cushion is designed “to alleviate back pain and promote proper posture while providing maximum comfort,” O’Connor said.
It does that by reducing the contact points a person’s posterior has with a chair through the air cells in the cushion, thereby stimulating blood flow throughout the legs. The foam in the cushion also absorbs shock.
The 3P is particularly helpful for semi-truck drivers, who can suffer health consequences from constantly sitting and feeling the vibrations of their truck.
“I want this to be a comfort product, but at the same time I feel good knowing there’s a chance that what I’m making is actually helping people,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor is now working to complete a patent application for the 3P so he can license the product and sell it to other manufacturers.
He chose to do that because making and selling the cushions himself was not feasible.
“I’ll be making a smaller portion of the profits, but I’ll still be making something,” O’Connor noted.
His plan is to get more feedback from truck drivers who are currently testing the cushion and have it licensed by the end of the summer.
O’Connor also received $300 toward his business from Monroe County startUP Chairman George Obernagel.
O’Connor said he would not have made it this far without help from numerous people beyond those already mentioned.
“I want to thank everyone who helped me on this,” he said. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”
For more information on the 3P or if you are a professional truck driver wanting to test the product, email firstname.lastname@example.org.