positivelysuperior.com

June/July 2015

By Scott Stein

To the Rescue

Water Rescue Innovations’ ARM-LOC Device Gains a Growing Fan Base
Including First Responders, Industries – and the Discovery Channel

water_rescueConnie Sylvester inspires people.

Talk to her about her product, her company and the vision she has for changing an industry (or industries) and it’s easy to catch her enthusiasm.

And with interest growing in that product, it’s Sylvester’s goal to build an even larger market that shares her enthusiasm.

Sylvester is the chief executive officer of Water Rescue Innovations and the owner of a product named ARM-LOC™, an easy-to-use water rescue device.

Don’t underestimate the fact that it’s easy to use, because first responders most definitely are not  underestimating it. In fact, water rescue techniques and equipment really haven’t changed much since, well – ever.

But the ARM-LOC might be just the innovation to change that.

“One of the great things about this product is that as we’ve shown it to people, we’ve realized how many lives we can help save with it and how different people can use it,” Sylvester said. “We’ve listened to what customers have told us and continue to make it better.”

The ARM-LOC is deceptively simple. The rescue responder or the victim slides the unit onto their forearm and then pulls a lanyard to “lock” it into place. It can be deployed repeatedly.

That might not sound like a revolution to you, but think about what the ARM-LOC eliminates: the need for the victim to grasp a rope.

Do you want to know one of the biggest problems in rescuing people? You guessed it – getting them to grasp and hold on to a rope or other device.

Rescuing someone from the water is also a dangerous situation for the person doing the rescuing. Victims can panic during a rescue and oftentimes rescuers themselves can be in danger. ARM-LOC helps to address that issue also by allowing rescuers several different options for rescue methods, including throwing the device to the victim and then pulling the victim to safety through the attached rope.

“It’s a product that makes sense in a lot of industries,” Sylvester said.

The Beginning

ARM-LOC has its origins with Sylvester’s brother, Ron. He watched a television show about a victim who, after a valiant effort by rescuers, drowned after letting go of a lifeline. Ron thought the rescue attempt also put the rescuer at risk for being whisked down the raging river.

He believed there had to be a better way, so he bought a buoyancy vest, tore it apart and created a prototype.

“When you have the people who would be using it excited about the product, that’s a great sign.”
– Steve Wedan, president and CEO – Imricor Medical Systems

Like most prototypes, it was rough – but the concept was there. Ron didn’t want to develop it into an actual product, but he did share his idea with his sister. At that time, Sylvester was the owner and operator of First-Class Child Care in Duluth. When she and her husband took a trip out to the West Coast, she watched sailboats, played on the water and casually talked about the ARM-LOC with friends over dinner one night.

“My friends said that I should develop it, and seeing all those boats and ferries, I thought they were probably right,” Sylvester said. “So when I got back, I went to work on it.”

That’s an understatement.

What happened next might become part of the business annals of American entrepreneurial legend. You know – the one where the entrepreneur tinkers away at the invention in the middle of the night and on weekends. The one where they bootstrap the whole company based on pure optimism and determination.

That’s exactly what Sylvester did.

When she put the kids in her child-care center down for a nap, she’d get right to work improving the prototype. She didn’t tell anyone what she was doing initially, but she made huge progress to the tune of seven more versions, in less than 14 months, of what would become the ARM-LOC.

She showed it to potential customers – fire departments, the Coast Guard, other rescue workers and anyone else who would listen. Response was favorable and suggestions were plentiful. She tested it, failed, improved and tested it again until she could truly see its value.

And its potential.

Seeing is Believing

Steve Wedan is the president and chief executive officer of Imricor Medical Systems, a medical device company based in Burnsville, Minn. Wedan is originally from Duluth and he knew Connie and her husband. He also knows a good business idea when he sees it and he volunteered to help Sylvester scale it. Wedan now sits on the board of directors of Water Rescue Innovations.

“People showed a lot of excitement when she showed this product, particularly the first responders,” Wedan said. “When you have the people who would be using it excited about the product, that’s a great sign. I knew Connie and I knew she believed in the product, so I wanted to help.”

Wedan helped steer the young company toward the best business structure and he’s also been guiding it through the processes of raising money with investors. Water Rescue Innovations has raised approximately $350,000 so far and has no loans or debt.

Sylvester also attracted other supporters and investors. Nicki LaLonde handles the client relations work of Water Rescue Innovations, and she’s also one of the major investors. LaLonde travels to expos to talk about the ARM-LOC and also performs demonstrations and meets with clients.

She’s been with the company a little over a year and says that when she demonstrates the ARM-LOC, she usually gets one reaction.

“They can’t believe the strength of it,” LaLonde explained. “Once they put it on, they realize that it really does hold you and allows the rescue to be safer for everyone.”

Those kinds of demonstrations are driving growth so far. LaLonde and Sylvester used LinkedIn a lot in the beginning, but product interest has primarily grown through word of mouth and positive public relations.

Discovery Channel Spreads the Word

You can’t gain much more positive PR than attracting the attention of the Discovery Channel, which featured the ARM-LOC this spring on an episode of its “Daily Planet” program. Other media have also been intrigued. The ARM-LOC has been featured on Fox 21, the Northland’s NewsCenter, the Duluth News Tribune and radio outlets.

All this makes LaLonde’s job easier by giving the new product credibility and helping to spread the word. There are a lot of advantages to being an innovator, but one of the early challenges is getting people to pay attention to the invention.

Increasingly, that’s not a problem.

“We saw a lot of inquiries after the Discovery Channel piece aired,” LaLonde said. “The more chances we get to show it to people, the more people talk about it.”

The other primary member of the Water Rescue Innovations team is Cassandra Bachtell. She does the company’s accounting and investment work and provides plenty of business expertise. She has worked in established high-tech, high-growth companies and has plenty of operational experience. She’s also a board member.

“We saw a lot of inquiries after the Discovery Channel piece aired.”
– Nicki LaLonde, client relations

– Water Rescue Innovations

Bachtell met Sylvester through the child-care service and over a period of months became intrigued about the ARM-LOC project Sylvester was building. And her eventual involvement in Water Rescue Innovations was based on both professional and profoundly personal interests.

“My mother drowned,” Bachtell said. “So when I heard about what she was doing, I was curious and wanted to get involved.”

She was also looking to leave the corporate world, which she did in 2013 for the exciting – but more unpredictable – world of the business start-up.

“We all wear a lot of hats here,” Bachtell said. “We have to. But all of us believe in the product and think it’s going to save a lot of lives. That’s something I want to be a part of.”

Growing Possibilities

The company is poised to make a leap. And there’s a growing and wider variety of potential customers.

One of the interesting questions about this product is how many lives it could save, and in how many different ways. The ARM-LOC was originally developed as a water rescue device and it functions very well in that way.

But one of the things Sylvester learned as she talked to first responders is that it had a wider application and more markets than she had originally thought possible.

“We started thinking about ice rescue, for example,” Sylvester said. “That was part of the reason why we had to continue to develop it, because it has multiple uses.”

“All of us believe in the product and think it’s going to save a lot of lives. That’s something I want to be a part of.”
– Cassandra Bachtell, accounting and investments – Water Rescue Innovations

And that created multiple design challenges. Early prototypes for the ice rescue version, for example, were unsuccessful because it would freeze and come off the victim’s arm or it wouldn’t deploy correctly. Sylvester approached Aqua Lung, which manufactures sophisticated diving equipment, for help to address these problems – and that was a savvy move on her part. After all, Aqua Lung is a big company with worldwide operations. As its website proudly proclaims: “Aqua Lung is the name that first introduced the world to scuba diving in 1943, when Jacques Yves-Cousteau and Emile Gagnan developed the first ‘Aqua-Lung.’”

Aqua Lung not only helped with design issues; the company is gearing up to manufacture the ARM-LOC, which could now open up even more doors for Water Rescue Innovations down the line.

The device’s applications are not limited to only ice rescue, either, or water in general. Sylvester and LaLonde have demonstrated the product for fire fighters, who often have to use ropes to help pull victims to safety.

What about float plane operators, you ask? They’re interested. What about having to rescue victims in tight spaces? ARM-LOC would work. And wouldn’t the ARM-LOC be a better idea than throwing a ring buoy? Yes, it probably would.

“The Concept Works Everywhere”

Steve McCall works for the Golden Sunlight Mine in Montana, a gigantic gold mine near Butte. McCall is one of the safety training staff at the mine. He’s also a firm believer in the ARM-LOC; such a firm believer, in fact, that he’s also helping to sell the product in the western part of the U.S.

“One of the things I love about the product is that it’s so versatile,” McCall said. “We can use it in different places and situations. The concept works everywhere. It’s going to save lives in a number of different situations.”

McCall spends his days thinking about how to keep miners safe, so he should know. He said he was impressed by the solution the product provided – a safe way to connect to the victim without putting the rescuer in any more harm’s way in confined space situations.

“Think about what this can do,” McCall said. “It can float two men weighing 200 pounds. There’s no need to grab a struggling victim by the hand and put yourself at risk. You won’t lose finger dexterity in cold weather.

“Think about what this can do. It can float two men weighing 200 pounds.”
– Steve McCall, safety training staff – Golden Sunlight Mine, Montana

You can self-deploy it by pumping it up yourself. It can help in many different ways. I wish I didn’t need it, but I’m certain I’ll have to use it one day.”

McCall is equally impressed by the response from the company. He said it’s refreshing to call the number and talk to the CEO. He’s also impressed with the way Water Rescue Innovations takes suggestions on how to improve the product – or even how to use it. McCall suggested the ARM-LOC could also be used for a pressure dressing or to help in a bone fracture situation. Sylvester and her team have also heard plenty about situations involving the need for tourniquets and splints, as well as scenarios involving landslides and people trapped in silos.

It appears that this simple device created to help with water rescue could end up becoming a valuable, Swiss Army Knife-type solution that will work in a lot of dangerous situations.

Perhaps the company’s name – Water Rescue Innovations – doesn’t do it justice. Water rescue equipment, in particular, hasn’t experienced much innovation in many years. Based on the initial reception from first responders and other emergency personnel, it’s possible that the ARM-LOC has potential to create more than a ripple in a number of industries.

The company will need help, of course, and so far a good portion of that help is coming locally. ARM-LOC is being manufactured in Two Harbors, Minn. The City of Superior was supportive of Sylvester’s concept and helped her locate offices in the Superior Business Center, as well as connecting her to a loading dock area.

Jason Serck is the city’s economic development planning and port director. He said the city likes the company’s early enthusiasm and sees growth potential.

“They have a lot going for them,” Serck said. “They have a great product that customers like. They’re willing to partner and look at different ideas and they’re committed to what they’re doing. We want to do everything we can to encourage that. It’s early, but it’s exciting to see what they’ve done so far.”

What Water Rescue Innovations has done so far is exciting – but if businesses really are built around people, product and process, then the potential for what Sylvester and her team could do is even more impressive.

There is a passionate, dedicated entrepreneur who has surrounded herself with smart, committed and capable partners. There is a demonstrated product that is getting a lot of positive buzz in a core market and, increasingly, in new markets. And there’s an expanding process for manufacturing, marketing and reaching more customers.

Water Rescue Innovations is right on the edge of potentially doing something many businesspeople dream about: changing an industry, creating massive value and saving lives.

“We’ve done a lot of work and come a long way,” Sylvester said. “Now we need to take it to that next level.”  P.S.

Scott Stein is a freelance writer.

 

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