Danville, VA -- What started as a passing observation while watching a TV show is turning into major entrepreneurial success for one Halifax businessman. It was three years ago when Paul Davis was watching a home show on the HGTV network. Although each of the show’s featured homes was quite beautiful, they all had one major detractor in the kitchen.
“A horribly messy refrigerator,” the owner of South Boston’s Sears store recalls. “Papers, pictures, magnets, you name it – they were all covered with it.”
Davis looked at his own refrigerator and realized it was no better. That was a “eureka moment” for Davis, who’d been trying to come up with an idea for a great new invention ever since Danville Community College’s Workforce Services division opened its Advanced Digital Manufacturing Lab in 2001. Among other things, the lab’s charter challenges the College to provide affordable rapid prototyping services to local entrepreneurs who need help with product development.
Armed with a head full of ideas regarding refrigerator door organizers, Davis hired Bedford product engineer Dwight Smith to create engineering specifications that could be used to build the prototypes on DCC’s Selective Laser Sintering machine. Davis encouraged Smith to be sure the plans complied with three golden rules of marketing success that had been shared with him by a former marketing executive at the Home Shopping Network: (1) Be sure the product is a household item that (2) adds convenience to people’s lives, and (3) is priced under $25.
Davis threw in a couple additional rules of his own, insisting that the product not only be functional, but also very stylish as well. “We didn’t want anything cheesy-looking,” Davis recalls with a laugh.
From this simple set of rules applied to one terrifically good idea, Frigemates: A Cool Way to Organize was born -- and the product is definitely anything but cheesy.
Featuring two styles from which to choose, Frigemates gives users the option of a calendar or an organizer. The calendar model provides individual calendar pages to use for planning family schedules. It also features a holder for appointment cards and for pens and pencils. The organizer model features a magnetized dry erase board, as well as pockets and hooks for pencils and pens, cell phones, and key rings. The 12-inch-by-12-inch units retail for $19.99 and $24.99 each, respectively, and come in a variety of colors to match refrigerators’ veneers. Buyers can also choose from a variety of inspirational messages to be included on their boards.
This month, the company is celebrating its national product launch, which was recently kicked off in a ceremony at DCC’s Regional Center for Advanced Technology & Training (RCATT) in Danville.
Davis says it is only fitting that the Frigemates celebration be held at the RCATT facility since the College played such a key role in helping him develop his product.
“DCC’s rapid prototyping lab provides an amazing service to inventors and entrepreneurs,” Davis says. “Not only can the College build scale models to test a product, but the staff was also eager to help me with follow-up work as well.”
DCC’s Director of Manufacturing and Technical Services Jerry Franklin, who oversees the lab, says DCC has provided support for numerous existing companies in addition to start-up ventures like Davis’s.
“We recently worked with a client from Richmond who has developed a device for the medical and pharmaceutical world,” Franklin notes. “And we work with folks like local motorcycle builder Rick Doss in helping him design custom parts for motorcycles. Of course, we also work on a regular basis with local manufacturers to help them test new designs or build unique replacement parts for their equipment.”
Franklin notes that since the College’s Selective Laser Sintering machine was purchased under a Department of Labor grant in 2001, DCC has documented the creation of 175 jobs that have been significantly influenced by the availability of these rapid prototyping services.
With Frigemates now hitting the national market, Davis is optimistic that he might be able to add 10 more jobs to that figure over the next year. The company has recently been licensed to use collegiate logos on its products, which should open up a huge additional market segment. Already Frigemates has signed an agreement with the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association to use the product in an upcoming nationwide fundraiser, along with participating companies Nike and MacGregor. In addition, a representative for the Consumer Specialty Products Association was so enthusiastic over Davis’s creation that he told Davis he wants to put Frigemates in as one of the association’s Top Ten New Products for the Year.
As for Davis, he is just taking it all in stride and hoping for the best. “It’s been a long 3-year journey and a huge learning experience,” he says. “But invention and enterprise is the American way, and I hope it is also the Southside Virginia way, as it would be terrific to see more people trying to get their ideas and inventions developed and on the market. We’ve got the local facilities right here at DCC to support it, so there is no reason anybody in our area should not be pursuing their dreams.”
DCC President-Dr. Carlyle Ramsey; Industrial Development Authority (IDA) Executive Director-Mike Sexton; Development Director-Patsy Vaughan; Web Designer and IDA Board Member-Lisa Kipps-Brown; Entrepreneur Paul Davis; wife Kim Davis; and daughter Heather Davis; back row: IDA Marketing Director Nancy Smith; IDA Executive Assistant-Kristy Johnson.