The Path that Led to A BlueSky
In the late 70’s, Di Goodwin led groups through woods and wetlands and taught cross-country skiing, backpacking and heritage crafts, like applehead dolls, candle-making and tin-smithing.
At Tonka, she got her feet wet in design for manufacturing, drafting detailed drawings on the drawing board, and dabbling in sculptural design.
Off and on, she led teens in outdoor recreation–camping, canoeing, swimming and rock climbing–some had disabilities, others were chemically dependent or in trouble with the courts.
In 1984, she entered the field of Rehab Engineering–combining design with working with people with disabilities. She did an apprenticeship at the University of Virginia, an internship at Beneficial Designs, and went on to work at Gillette Children’s Hospital and Tamarack Habilitation Technologies, providing rehab engineering services and custom solutions to individuals with disabilities. Areas of specialization included mounting to wheelchairs, access for communication and powered mobility and job accommodations.
Interested in impacting more people, Dianne took a job at AbleNet. She was a Product Engineer/Project Manager and was responsible for the Specs Switch, All-Turn-It Spinner and Games, and a one button TV and VCR Remote.
BlueSky’s Early Years (circa 1997)
Dianne started off on her own with a combination of service delivery work and a STAR Grant. In her client work, she assessed their needs, made recommendations for commercially-available equipment, recommended ergonomic workstations and chairs, and designed custom solutions. In addition, she developed AT resources and training in Northern Minnesota.
The STAR program of Minnesota funded two projects: accessible outdoor recreation and trail assessments; and job adaptations for individuals with physical and cognitive disabilities. Dianne hired others as needed to carry out the grant activities.
For years, the BlueSky staff expanded and contracted based on grant funding. The staff would change too, in relation to the skills required–sewing tent prototypes, designing mechanisms in 3D, and programming microprocessors require very different skills.
As in her earlier work, when commercial solutions were not available, Dianne designed and built custom solutions. At times, she drew up plans and had others fabricate the designs, developing a network of resources. Through her years providing custom designs, she recognized recurring needs which couldn’t be met by existing assistive technologies–leading to ideas for future R&D.
Spurred on by her interest in accessible outdoor recreation, she received her first SBIR grant–to develop a more accessible tent. Additional SBIR grants and projects followed–supporting R&D in accessible mounting, powered mounting and positioning, and a watercraft transfer device. After years of surviving on Grant funds, BlueSky decided to look for alternatives and explore a mix of grant and product-based revenues.
This Little Jiggy went to Market
One approach to getting a product developed to market is to secure a patent and license it to a company with related products to expand on their line. This works well, since they’ve got manufacturing, sales and distribution channels in place. On the down side, one loses control and reaps a small royalty. BlueSky followed this approach for the Garden Rocker (Vertex) and Freedom Tent (Eureka!).
Di, Cheryl Volkman and Sherry Rovig formed White Pine Concepts, a separate LLC to develop and license a universal design solution for Baby Boom gardeners with aches and pains. The design went through many iterations and testing; and design and patent applications were filed and awarded. Rather than manufacture it themselves, they sought out and found a manufacturing partner in Vertex, another Minnesota company.
Accessible tent designs and zipperless doors for tents were developed as a result of a SBIR from the USDA. BlueSky “pitched the tent” to a couple of key companies in the outdoor recreation world. Eureka licensed the design and manufactured the Freedom Tent from 2006-2012. They also incorporated the fan door in other products, including an ATV “garage”.
Another model is to develop your idea and produce it yourself. This takes a Leap of Faith a large upfront investment– for tooling and inventory, and an even larger ongoing commitment–for marketing and, most importantly, Staff.
In 2008, BlueSky Designs launched the Mount’n Mover. Our goal was to become self-supporting and reduce our reliance on grants. Within 3 years, we had turned the tide. We put new product development on hold in order to focus on selling product.
We will continue to stay true to our Mission–to “Design Beyond Limits”, and make it possible for people to do what they want to do, and do it more easily. There are plenty of unmet needs. Our job is to figure out how and where we can make a meaningful and significant difference.
We will continue to listen to our customers to improve our products and expand on them. We will listen for other problems, and involve people with disabilities in the process so the solutions we develop address real problems in practical ways.
We will expand our markets globally, and find new applications for our products.
We will seek grant funds to support the development of exciting new, innovative products. Stay tuned!