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Blessings of Liberty

Saturday, March 1, 1997

In 1994, Ryan Jarvis had a tragic accident on the basketball court at his high school. While scrambling for the ball during a pick-up game, Ryan, 16, got elbowed in the face. The blow severed his optic nerve and blinded him in his right eye.

Some entrepreneurs manage to turn adversity into inspiration, not regulation and litigation.

Despite this injury, Ryan just wanted to go back to playing basketball and football. His father, Ed Jarvis, had his own decision to make: How should he respond to his son's accident? The contemporary American culture of victimhood offered him a range of options. He could have sued the high school, the basketball manufacturer, or the National Basketball Association for encouraging Ryan to play a dangerous sport despite the risks. He could have organized a grass-roots lobbying campaign to impose tougher safety standards on high-school sports and facilities. He could have gone on the talk-show circuit to decry athletic bellicosity, soliciting donations to start a charitable foundation to aid the victims of sports injuries.

Jarvis did none of these things. In typically American fashion, he saw a business opportunity -- and took it.

Jarvis discovered that a major reason athletes still suffer so many eye injuries --more than 40,000 in 1995, according to a nonprofit group called Prevent Blindness America -- is that the available protective gear is hard to wear and hard to use. Standard visors, he found, scratched easily, tended to fog up on the court, and distorted the view that players had of their opponents and the ball. Kids, in particular, didn't want to wear them, because they were uncomfortable and interfered with performance. So Jarvis set out to design a better face guard.

"It wasn't my intention to enter the optical or sporting-goods business," said Jarvis in an article in Business Week. "I just wanted to provide my son with the right equipment. But I've learned that to have a product, you need a sense of purpose." The protective visors then on the market were nothing more than pieces of plastic made to fit helmets or heads, so Jarvis, a former food-distribution executive from Lynn, Massachusetts, consulted experts in optics and ophthalmology. They told him that the products had no optical design in them at all. He then created a new company, One Xcel, to market a new product.

The One Xcel visor that Jarvis designed is both coated to prevent fogging and scratches and curved to reduce distortion. It provides a broader side-to-side vision sweep than competitors' products. It is now the face shield of choice in the National Football League and is popular in the National Hockey League. "It's a superior product," says Jack Jeffers, the team ophthalmologist for the Philadelphia Eagles football team. Former New York Ranger Dave Maloney, who coaches youth ice hockey in Connecticut, predicts success for the improved headgear because in competitive sports "the slightest edge can make a great difference." Now Jarvis is working on special protective goggles for basketball players using the same optical and practical considerations.

Pointing the Finger

We're not used to seeing stories about personal tragedies, especially those involving children and recreation, end with a story of entrepreneurial success. The more familiar outcome is a lawsuit or a publicity campaign. In 1988, for example, one father virtually single-handedly got the federal government to regulate lawn darts after his seven-year-old daughter was accidentally killed by one. His crusade drew the spotlight of the national news and the talk shows, and directed tremendous public concern toward the Reagan administration's perceived "excesses" in regulatory reform.

More recently, two Nevada parents mourning the death of their 13-year-old son brought attention to what the Consumer Product Safety Commission called the "serious problem" of in-line skating injuries. And the mother of a five-year-old girl who died after the string of her coat got caught on a slide at a school playground helped publicize the cause of replacing drawstrings in children's clothing with buttons, zippers, Velcro, and snaps. In 1994, the commission announced a "voluntary" agreement by 21 major manufacturers of children's clothing to replace drawstrings, which the chairwoman of the commission called "a deadly hazard."

The value of these particular campaigns is debatable. Only three children had ever died from lawn darts, the Nevada boy had died while holding the bumper of a moving vehicle, and the percentage of drawstrings causing injury or death was minuscule. Yet the heartfelt sentiment of the parents was unquestionable. Many seek to turn their personal tragedy into something that benefits others, and there is nothing wrong with pursuing corrective action when the facts of the case warrant it.

But for many types of consumer risks or needs, the better response might be not to ban or mandate but to invent and market. After all, the sheer number of risks that face children and adults every day confounds regulators. For example, about 2,000 Americans injure themselves each year with party balloons. Another 4,000 injure themselves with pillows, while 3,000 do so (I'm not making this up) with their room deodorizers. For these and other products, it may be virtually impossible to predict how misuse or unique circumstances can lead to an accident. Experience, and the reaction of producers and consumers to it, can be an important stimulus of innovation and improvement. Millie Thomas got the idea for her business, RGT Enterprises, not from an accident but just the possibility of one. One day, her one-year-old son came toddling toward her with a toothbrush in his mouth. Thomas instantly imagined her child impaled on the long handle of the toothbrush. After bending it into a ring shape to prevent that, she started thinking: Has anyone else thought to do this? Thomas perfected and patented a toothbrush, spoon, and fork with a triangular-shaped, easy-to-grip handle. These Kindertools are now sold in supermarkets and through mail order.

Handheld Wheelchairs

Adversity is often the mother of invention, as the story of Joseph Jarke shows. At age 19, he was left paraplegic in an automobile accident. He subsequently discovered that it was very difficult for wheelchair-bound people to travel long distances because of narrow airplane aisles and inaccessible hotel rooms. This was not just an inconvenience but a genuine barrier to professions requiring travel.

Rather than agitate for regulations to address the problem, Jarke saw "a chance to do something I'd always wanted to do: create a product." He invented a wheelchair that could fold up to the size of a briefcase, thus making it easier for the handicapped to take their own wheelchairs on trips. Helped by the marketing efforts of delighted airlines, his company, SeatCase, Inc., had $1 million in sales by 1993. "We really have changed the world in a small way," Jarke has said.

It's not surprising that innovative ideas such as these would arise from personal knowledge or experience. Invention more often comes from everyday experience rather than from tinkering in a laboratory. Great fortunes have been created by a worker simply observing a problem on the job and designing a solution.

Perhaps the patron saint of innovation inspired by adversity is Elijah McCoy, for whom the phrase "the real McCoy" was coined. A 19th-century inventor and son of slaves, McCoy excelled in school and studied mechanical engineering in Scotland. Though a skilled engineer, McCoy found it impossible to gain employment as one in the United States because of racial discrimination. Even as a lowly locomotive fireman, however, McCoy soon discovered an opportunity for entrepreneurship: the tradeoff between safety and convenience in the railroad industry.

As historian Burton Folsom recounts, locomotive engines of the post-Civil War period had to be oiled frequently to avoid overheating and creating dangerous fires. On the other hand, the only way to oil the engine was to stop it, thus delaying freight and passengers. McCoy invented a lubricating cup that oiled engine parts as the train was moving. He patented his invention in 1872 and so gained a promotion at the Michigan Central Railroad. Although other suppliers tried to duplicate his invention, McCoy stayed a step ahead by constantly improving it and inventing other lubrication and safety devices for railroads, steamships, and stationary engines. These industries found that they preferred "the real McCoy" rather than alternatives for keeping their engines safe and moving.

Companies have incentives to care about the safe and comfortable use of their products by consumers, and most do so. For one thing, a consumer who gets sick or injured while using a product is less likely to buy from its manufacturer in the future. Also, negative publicity about faulty or dangerous products can alienate first-time consumers as well as potential workers or investors. Studies show that consumers rate safety at or near the top of the list of factors they consider when choosing among products of similar price. In a survey for Whirlpool Corp., 80 percent of respondents named safety as an always-important indicator, higher than workmanship (74 percent) and materials (66 percent). Poor product safety can also significantly harm a manufacturer's stock price.

Even with all these incentives to be safe and to care about the needs of their consumers, however, corporations are neither omniscient nor infallible. Despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year testing each of the 20,000 new products that make it to the marketplace each year, producers can make mistakes or overlook opportunities for making products better. Those who make or consume products are often better able to see their flaws, especially when those flaws result in poor performance or even accidents. It only makes sense to encourage the people who know first-hand what is wrong with a product or activity not to lobby or litigate but to use their knowledge to promote innovation.

Free enterprise is a dynamic, even organic process of generating new ideas through constant human interaction. It isn't perfect, and it doesn't produce immediate solutions to every problem. In the real world, many opportunities go unrecognized. The Jarvis family found one, turning tragedy into a chance to help others. Instead of saying, "There ought to be a law," they said, "There ought to be a better product." And they made it.

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