Inventive entrepreneurs
Publication Date: Wednesday Jun 15, 1994

Inventive entrepreneurs

A wealth of modern-day Edisons call the Palo Alto area home

by Peter Gauvin

Bill Hewlett, David Packard and the Varian brothers, Sigurd and Russell, may be Palo Alto's most famous and successful entrepreneurs, but they certainly don't have a corner on the market of novel ideas. Here, four inventive entrepreneurs from the Palo Alto area and their diverse, unique concepts for business success are profiled. Two of the products cater to the environmentally conscious, another provides a new perspective of Earth from above the Earth, and the other could very well save your tail one day. None of these folks has yet made a fortune with their pioneering ideas, but give them time.

The Eco-Air Pack: Hold the peanuts

When Juanita A. Gonzales, or "JAG," as she is known professionally and personally, sent away for an electronic ear thermometer for her newborn baby, the tiny but fragile instrument arrived encased in an oversized box surrounded by an obscene amount of unrecyclable Styrofoam peanuts. Rather than putting it into the trash and sending to the dump to decay over the next few centuries, she mailed the package and inorganic peanuts back to the company. There had to be a better way, she thought.

That was 1992.

Today, Gonzales and the shoestring research and development firm she founded, JAG Companies, have designed and marketed an environmentally sound packaging system that protects fragile cargo from damage, can be used over and over again and is nearly completely recyclable--all without the non-perishable peanuts. And it's cheap, too.

(The city of Palo Alto and the Stanford Recycling Center stopped recycling styrofoam peanuts last winter because of a weak polystyrene market.)

Called the Eco-Air Pack, JAG's system solves two problems associated with loose-fill, dunnage-based systems: storage and handling headaches for the shipper and awkward disposal for the recipient.

The system is one of those amazingly simple innovations that makes you wonder why someone hadn't thought of it a long time ago. Basically, it works by suspending the article in a plastic bag from a cardboard insert that holds it away from the sides of the cardboard box, protecting it from shock on all sides.

Because it is an environmentally sound product, the U.S. Patent and Trademark office gave it a special status to accelerate the patent process from five years to two years, said Gene Simpson, JAG's research director, an engineer who helped design and refine the product. The system just received a "Notice of Allowance" for the patent a few months ago.

Although it was originally designed for ear thermometers, JAG is marketing the Eco-Air Pack to a diverse range of companies, including camera manufacturers, dinosaur bone shippers, marble manufacturers, catalog sales outlets, packaging stores and even a bone china company.

That's fitting, because Gonzales is a diversified entrepreneur. She started her first company, JAG For Taxes, a tax return preparation firm located in the California Avenue business district, in 1984. Her start-up R&D firm is located in the same building, and she and Simpson, who are presently putting the finishing touches on the Eco-Air Pack marketing campaign, hope to begin working on other ideas soon. They include a plumbing product and "Pizza Bones," a no-mess, pizza-filled breadstick that looks like a femur bone.

By the way, the company that provided Gonzales with the inspiration to invent the Eco-Air Pack is now using the product to ship its ear thermometers.

JAG Companies, 490 Cambridge Ave., Palo Alto, CA 94306. Call 321-9858 or fax 321-9208.

The Pelvic Protector: Save your fanny

The instinctive reaction for many beginning in-line skaters is to lean back when trepidation seizes them, although that can have the same results as having the rug yanked out from under you. That's why wrist guards are recommended as an essential piece of a skater's armor, says Doug Obujen: you don't want to break your wrists trying to break a fall.

But when Obujen began roller blading three years ago, he found there was another susceptible contact point for which there was no protection: his keister. That's when the Palo Alto-based entrepreneur came up with the idea for the Pelvic Protector, a 5-by-10-inch piece of inch-thick polyurethane foam that slips into your shorts to protect your tailbone.

Obujen received a patent for his device in late March. The pad has been selling for more than a year in Bay Area sport shops and he is now introducing it across the country for $11.95. His market exposure was recently buoyed by a blurb on his product in the June issue of "Outside" magazine.

Obujen's business, Elec-Cell Company, is a one-man, one-desk operation. He can design, manufacture, package and promote the Pelvic Protector without ever having to rise from his chair. A miniature, self-designed assembly line is fitted to one end of his desk, complete with a hand-held sewing machine.

Now in its 15th model, the product could also find a market in other sports, such as ice skating and snow boarding, Obujen believes. Hockey players have purchased it in pairs for use as hip protectors. Elec-Cell, P.O. Box 160446, Cupertino, CA 95014. 326-6036

Bernard Andre Photography: Going where no camera has gone before

Twenty-nine-year-old Bernard Andre is a quintessential Frenchman despite growing up on Reunion Island, a tropical isle off Madagascar. Thanks to his knowledge of the Indian Ocean, he gained work as a photographer predominantly for French travel magazines.

"So many times I wished I could be 20 feet high to give detail and perspective, but there was not always a tree to climb," said Andre. These days, he no longer encounters that problem.

After working for several years in Paris, Andre's American wife grew tired of the "big city" and the two moved to the United States, eventually settling in Menlo Park. She found steady work as a CPA in Silicon Valley while Andre struggled as a photographer, discovering the field compacted and especially difficult for a young foreigner with no reputation or connections. He searched for something to differentiate his work from the masses.

He wanted to provide a new viewpoint that would give a three-dimensional effect to his work, but his days climbing trees were over. Besides, they weren't always available. A year ago he found his answer: Aerial balloon photography.

Andre's feet never leave terra firma. Only his camera does.

A remote-control, helium-filled balloon sends his Hasselblad camera and $2,000 lenses skyward, providing various perspectives, from an earthly height of 10 feet to a bird's-eye view of 450 feet. Andre remains on the ground, controlling the balloon and camera system with a miniature video lens installed in the viewfinder of the still camera. It monitors the picture and beams back the image to a video screen on a push cart that serves as mission control.

The result is that Andre can take pictures where others cannot. "Planes can't fly low enough (not below 500 feet)," he said. "The goal of the balloon is to fill the gap between ground-level photography and aerial photography. It's not better. It's not worse. It just provides a unique perspective."

Often it's the same viewpoint an architect would use to do a rendering. Called a "vertical oblique," it provides information on three axes: width, depth and height. For this reason, Andre is called on to do a lot of work with real estate agencies trying to sell sprawling, million-dollar estates in the foothills.

"If you shoot from the ground all you get is a big wall. From the balloon I can get that unique viewpoint" that provides a better context of the building and its surroundings.

Andre also has done work for Stanford University's Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve and Hewlett-Packard, as well as some artistic panorama shots of San Francisco that he plans to market as postcards.

The average cost for one shot from the balloon is $220, and a full day goes for $1,000. While that may sound like good income, he can't work in the wind or rain and that can make for lean winters. Plus, he adds, people don't want photos taken when there are no leaves on the trees.

There are considerable overhead expenses as well. His balloon and camera system he got at a deal, $6,000, from a free-lance engineer, but they generally range from $12,000 to $20,000, he said. He also had to buy an enclosed trailer to haul around the balloon, which is permanently inflated because of the high cost of helium.

Still, it's better than climbing trees.

Bernard Andre Photography, 1033 Ringwood Ave., Menlo Park, CA 94025. Call or fax at 325-4868.

Re-Water: Save water and money with gray water

Thanks to a new state law and some fancy plumbing offered by a Palo Alto company, homeowners can now water their gardens with the same water they take a bath in or wash their clothes in.

Stephen Bilson, owner of ReWater Systems Inc. on Addison Avenue downtown, is ecstatic over an amendment to the state plumbing code that the California Building Standards Commission approved in March allowing the use of "gray water" for landscape irrigation.

"Historically, this water has been considered sewage because it was connected to the sewer," he said. Under Bilson's system, toilet and kitchen sink water still goes to the sewer, but water from showers, tubs, clothes washers, and bathroom and laundry sinks is recycled.

Bilson sponsored the initial legislation, authored by Palo Alto Assemblyman Byron Sher, and worked for more than two years to get the use of gray water approved. It previously had been legal in only seven counties, and Santa Clara and San Mateo counties were not among them. Now, Bilson and his Southern California competitor, as well as their customers, stand to reap the benefits.

Bilson says his filtering and sub-surface irrigation system ($1,295, plus installation) will save the average suburban home 45 to 50 percent of its water. The more people living there, the more water that is available. An average person produces between 40 and 60 gallons of gray water each day, which means your average four-person household will produce between 58,000 and 87,000 gallons per year.

The state Department of Water Resources figures the systems could save drought-plagued California 300,000 acre-feet of water per year, Bilson said. An acre-foot is roughly equivalent to the water used by a family of five in a year.

Depending on the size of the property under irrigation, Bilson projects that homeowners could save several thousand dollars, perhaps tens of thousands of dollars, on their water bills over the life time of their house.

But, you ask, Do I really want to water my flowers with soapy dishwater? Most consumer cleaning products are safe if they are low in chlorine and boron, and phosphates found in most detergents are actually required for healthy plant growth, Bilson said. But if you have to bleach a load of laundry, a diverter valve allows water to be discharged directly in the sewage system, avoiding plant contact. Small amounts of chlorine found in some scrubbing compounds become well-diluted and are not harmful to plants, he added.

Trees, shrubs and perennials do best with reused water, Bilson said, but grass and other short-rooted plants cannot reach the distribution depth required by law.

There are other benefits to using gray water as well, including erosion control, area cooling, dust maintenance and fire protection. And for the socially conscious, it will also benefit the community as a whole by cutting the costs of treating this water at the municipal sewage plant by reducing pumping costs.

Because irrigation with gray water is required to take place underground, Bilson's drip technology also keeps the water from evaporating. Drip irrigation has the added benefit of being precise in its application rates and placement, so virtually no water is wasted, Bilson adds.

Installation of the filter and irrigation system ranges from $200 to $1,500, depending on the size of the house and the number of bathrooms to be hooked up, he said.

ReWater Systems is located at 438 Addison Ave. and can be reached at 324-1307.

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