Alex Adams is a tinkerer and builder, now with a focus on hammocks

Alex Adams says he’s “always been a tinkerer and builder.”

The constantly smiling and very energetic junior in mechanical engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) was one of the two winners in the latest Boyd Venture Fund competition hosted by the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (ACEI).

Describing himself as a person who “never had a normal job” growing up as a teenager in Bristol, Adams told teknovation.biz that he builds things like rebreathers for scuba divers and is in the process of rebuilding a 1978 moped. Adams never said it, but one can imagine his motto being, “I never met something that I could not build or rebuild.”

The project that led to the Boyd Venture Fund award and $7,500 started his freshmen year at UTK when Adams lived on the engineering floor in Morrill Hall. He and his fellow students regularly rented hammocks from the front desk in the dormitory until demand greatly outstripped supply.

“We’re going to have to buy our own hammocks,” Adams recalls the dorm mates deciding. Unfortunately, the supply that they considered was too pricey – $65 for the hammock and another $50 for the ropes – and, more important, did not have a quality suspension system as they preferred. It seems that the traditional ropes used to suspend a hammock stretch out, making the user readjust the ropes to compensate for the stretching.

Adams, the perpetual builder, decided he could construct the proverbial “better mousetrap,” and he is already preselling a student-focused hammock for delivery in April. Getting from the idea to the product to selling it has been a real learning experience for the college student.

He initially focused on the rope system, carefully reviewing everything he could find on the Internet. Nobody was offering the particular system that Adams visualized, so he learned how to make it himself. The device that he designed and made was not only easier to adjust, but was also stronger and lighter weight.

As he explored the market potential, Adams realized it was going to be a challenge to convince his classmates to buy a hammock one place and the rope system from him.

“I decided that I needed to make hammocks, too,” he said. The challenge was finding a company to make both the hammock and the ropes at a price point that students could afford and Adams could make a profit.

“I was kind of stuck” last summer, he said.

Once again turning to the Internet, Adams found Alibaba.com, a site devoted to connecting businesses needing products or services with those who have the ability to meet the requirements. He identified a dozen possibilities to manufacture his concepts, contacted them, and received responses from six.

Adams began emailing with some of the potential manufacturers, exchanging pictures until a Chinese company responded, “Why don’t you send us your sample?” Adams said he thought, “This is getting real!”

So, still unsure of where it would lead, he sent the sample and received a response later that the company could make them, but they needed to start with one sample of the hammock and another of the rope.

Adams said he thought about it and, in spite of not having money to purchase a large quantity, he said, “Why not.” The samples came back, and Adams put them through the ultimate stress test – five children under five-years old. The hammock and ropes came through in flying colors, so Adams was faced with raising capital.

Someone directed him to Tom Graves, ACEI’s Director of Operations, who suggested he enter the Boyd Venture Fund. The only problem was that the conversation occurred on a Tuesday, and the deadline was Friday. “I said oh gosh,” Adams recalls, but he made the deadline including incorporating Adams Innovation LLC. “It was a gamble,” he admits.

Adams made the finals and had to prepare a presentation to deliver the following Friday at the final judging. Just a little over a week had elapsed since he first learned of the competition.

“I was beyond nervous,” Adams admitted of the presentation to the judges that he had memorized and pretty much discarded when he had to explain why hammocks were important to college students and how they used them.

Nevertheless, he won, the order for the first 500 hammock and rope units was placed, and orders are now being taken. Working with fellow UTK student Rebecca Mullen, he has a new logo and product name – Xada. It’s a made-up name, so we asked how it was developed. The “X” stands for the last letter of his first name, the “ada” represents the first three letters of his last name.

Adams recently met with Randy Boyd, sponsor of the award, and wants to follow the latter’s model of taking an existing product and marketing it in a different way to college students and campers. As such, he next plans to roll out a line of hammocks with accessories, like insect nets, to serve the outdoors market,

During his more than two-year journey, Adams admits, “I had no idea what I was really getting into when I first started.” He says “it felt overwhelming,” but now he is clearly pleased with his latest building project.

For others who have a vision and a passion for tinkering, Adams’ advice is simple – “pick an idea you like and start going with it.”

For those interested in learning more about the hammock and ropes, go to http://www.xadagear.com/.

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