Inventor, Entrepreneur, Airman: 180th Fighter Wing Airman embraces innovation

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Shane Hughes
  • 180th Fighter Wing, Ohio Air National Guard

Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Bill Gates; these are a few of the names which come to mind when people talk about success. Tom Burden is not on this list… yet.

Tech. Sgt. Tom Burden, an F-16 weapons mechanic assigned to the 180th Fighter Wing, developed a flexible, non-slip tool tray for aircraft mechanics called the Grypmat.

The inspiration came in 2013 after he almost fell off an F-16 while trying to retrieve a tool sliding off the curved surface of the jet. He knew there had to be a better way to keep the tools he needed nearby and secure while he worked. An idea came to him while he was sitting in his mom’s car and he noticed she had a non-slip mat on the dashboard to hold her cell phone. The problem was that he needed a similar product large enough to hold tools used by aircraft mechanics on steep angles or curved surfaces, non-static for use around sensitive electronics, and resistant to corrosive chemicals used in aircraft maintenance.

To solve these problems, he developed a special polymer-silicone blend that is anti-static, chemical resistant and can hold tools securely at up to a 70 degree angle.

“I faced a lot of challenges,” Burden said, “but the hardest part was figuring out the chemistry.”

His very first prototype was form-fitted to an F-16 gun trough and clipped onto the aircraft, but this limited his product to that specific section of the F-16 and he wanted mechanics to be able to use the Grypmat wherever they worked, so he began working with F-16 electricians from the 180FW to analyze their needs and improve their maintenance process. They provided feedback on his product and helped brainstorm ideas for a new prototype, which he made to meet their specific needs. 

Burden’s biggest breakthrough came when one of the electricians asked him for a simple mat with border tray around the edges. All of his previous prototypes had borders along one or two edges because he knew how the mat would clip onto an F-16 and where a tray would be needed to hold the tools. He hadn’t considered making it like a box.

“The form-fitted prototype took me weeks and weeks to get the measurements right, but the one he wanted took me about five minutes to create in CADD (computer-aided design and drafting),” Burden said.  

After he had the new prototype, Burden asked for feedback from 180FW mechanics about their preferences between the form-fitted mat and the simple mat. Everyone preferred the simple mat because of its versatility.

Once he had his final prototype, his next big challenge was finding a manufacturer.

“The hard part was getting the chemistry that would translate from a prototype to manufacturing,” Burden said. “It takes me 24 hours to make one prototype because it takes that long for the material to cure. I can’t do that in manufacturing. The process has to happen really fast. “

Every time he took his prototype to a potential manufacturer, there would be problems producing the Grypmat. One manufacturer added graphite to eliminate the static, but this made the product black. The mat needed to be brightly colored so mechanics could easily see their tools. Another concern was the price. When he found a manufacturer who could make the mat to his specifications, they estimated the price at $60 apiece, so the production costs were four times higher than what he needed them to be for the Grypmat to be profitable.

“There was always something wrong,” Burden said. “Maybe it was brightly colored or it was anti-static or the price was okay, but the rubber was like the rubber on your boot and wouldn’t hold tools at half the angle it needed to. We would get a product that would grip really well, but now it’s priced way too high and it’s high in static, so I can’t sell it to F-16 mechanics who can’t use it because all the weapons are charged with electricity.”

Things began to turn around after a short vacation in Michigan.

His friend kept asking him to go up to Michigan for a week to visit his lake house. Burden kept turning down the offer because he couldn’t afford to take a week off. He was too busy trying to solve his problems with the manufacturing process. Eventually his friend convinced him to take the weekend off to visit the lake and the trip turned out to be the answer to all his problems.

While at the lake house, he met a man named Tom Mansfield who manufactures products for Amazon. Burden told Mansfield about all the manufacturing problems he was dealing with, and Mansfield said he could manufacture the Grypmat to the needed specifications and he could do it at an affordable price. After his experiences with other manufacturers, Burden was skeptical, but Mansfield produced the mat exactly as he claimed.

After Burden had the prototype he needed, he reserved a booth at the 2016 Experimental Aircraft Association tradeshow. He took 600 Grypmats with him to the show, as many as he could fit into his dad’s truck, and had plans to sell them all, but at the end of day one he’d only sold 14.

He refused to let himself be discouraged though. The next day, while driving to the show, he said he pumped himself up by yelling, “I will sell a hundred Grypmats,” over and over again until he arrived. His determination paid off and he met his goal, but he still had a lot of inventory left to sell.

“I told myself, ‘I’m going to talk to every single vendor here, and everyone’s going to know who I am before I leave,’” Burden said. “There will be no opportunity lost due to my effort.”

On the last day of the tradeshow, he was approached by another vendor, Mueller Motorwerks, who bought his remaining inventory, becoming the first distributor for Grypmat.

Business grants played a large role in funding his efforts. He raised $150,000 in grants through various business competitions, applying to everything and anything that might get him closer to achieving his dreams.

Burden even moved to Milwaukee to apply for a grant for Wisconsin residents who are military members. He later found out the grant was fraud, but was undeterred by the setback. Instead, he applied for another $25,000 business grant. The new grant was only available to Wisconsin students, so he enrolled in yoga, soccer, and tennis at a local university. The risk paid off and he won the grant.

The grant money helped, but it wasn’t consistent and it didn’t cover all his expenses. Burden almost went bankrupt twice while developing prototypes, finding manufacturers and marketing at tradeshows, all while studying mechanical engineering at the University of Toledo.

“I went to a big military tradeshow early on and I spent all my money to be there,” Burden said. “It was $4,000 just for a booth and that’s not counting expenses for staying a week in Chicago, booth materials and samples. In four days, I spent around $10,000 and when you’re a college kid that’s a lot of money.”

The obstacles he faced were stressful and led him to doubt himself at times.

“I called my friend and told him I was ready to quit everything,” Burden said. “I would spend 10 hours a day at an airshow and at night I would write the grants. I actually used the money from the pre-orders just to get home because I didn’t have any money.”

Times were tough, but he remained persistent and determined to succeed against all odds. He sold his house in August of 2016 and spent a month living in his car so he could afford to continue pursuing his dream of becoming an inventor before moving into an apartment with friends in Columbus.

Throughout his journey, his mom has always been his biggest supporter Burden said. His father, however, didn’t always understand his drive and determination to become a successful inventor and entrepreneur.

“I would say, ‘I’ve got a meeting with this big company that might buy the Grypmat,’ and my dad would say, ‘Do you think they’d hire you?’ Every time I was like, ‘Yeah, they probably would, but that’s not the point.’ He asked me that for years, but eventually he realized I was in it for the long haul.”

Burden said creating, manufacturing and promoting the Grypmat was his full-time job. He couldn’t imagine trying to pursue his dreams part-time.

“Trying to pursue your passion while working full-time is like trying to be a long-jumper and keep one leg on the ground. You’re just not going to go as far. You have to take the leap if you want it.”

Burden knew the risks he was taking, but knew he couldn’t let fear hold him back.

“People don’t really explore their fear,” Burden said. “You have to ask yourself how far you’re willing to go for your company. Technically, I was homeless. I mean, worst case scenario, I’d put the driver’s seat back and sleep for a couple hours, or I’d call a friend and ask if I could sleep on their couch, or I’d go and stay a night at my parent’s house. It’s never as bad as people imagine.”

Burden uses his own experience as inspiration for others. He said one of his friends wanted to start a company but was afraid he wouldn’t be able to provide for his family. Burden advised his friend to explore the worst case scenario, which Burden said is always worse in peoples’ imaginations than in reality.

“What are you afraid of?” he asked. “Are you afraid they won’t eat? Because in this country, that’s almost impossible. Or are you really afraid of registering for food stamps? Are you afraid of standing in line at a food pantry? Or are you afraid of asking your parents for money? Are you afraid they won’t have a roof over their head? Because that’s not a real fear. Or are you afraid that you’d have to sell your house and downsize to a small apartment? Are you afraid you’d have to move into your in-laws basement? Is that the real fear? Because that’s what is most likely to happen. You’re not going to be living in a box on the street. That’s not a realistic fear. People exaggerate their fears.”

The risk and effort have paid off and he’s gotten the attention of some big name organizations. One of them is NASA. They ordered a small batch of Grypmats to test in their workspaces. After passing the initial tests, they ordered a larger batch for their mechanics to test how well the product fits into their workflow. Burden expects them to place a much larger order if the feedback from those tests is positive.

While most people would be impressed by interest from a major organization such as NASA, Burden said he’s more excited about possibly working with Aviall, the world's largest diversified aircraft parts distributor, whose market is much broader.

Last month, Burden started a Kickstarter campaign which was fully funded within the first 10 hours. The campaign ended after 29 days with $113,000, exceeding his fundraising goal, and he has pre-orders available on IndieGoGo.

He is now working with a digital marketing specialist, who is promoting direct sales while Burden promotes the product to large distributors like Pep Boys and Aviall. He has developed a dozen additional products to expand his line and plans to focus on the products with large markets before shifting his focus to more specialized markets.

“Flexibility and innovation are the bedrock of the Air National Guard and Sgt. Burden embodies these two attributes to his core,” said Col. Kevin V. Doyle, the commander of the 180FW. “We as leaders always talk about wanting our airmen to enhance the way we do business and to work through obstacles and overcome adversity wherever possible and Tom has done this. His willingness to put his personal lifestyle at risk to improve how aircraft maintenance personnel accomplish their jobs across the Department of Defense and civilian sector is a perfect example of a 180th Fighter Wing Airman demonstrating two of the Air Force’s core values. I am proud to have Sgt. Burden as one of my Airmen and look forward to seeing where he goes from here.”

Even though Burden has made a great deal of progress, he realizes he still has a lot more work left to do.

“You always think the light at the end of the tunnel is way closer than what it really is,” Burden said.

The determination to overcome obstacles, the resilience to push beyond adversity, and the spirit of innovation are unique hallmarks of the culture of success ingrained in the American people, the U.S military and the Ohio Air National Guard and these are the values which will carry Burden into a successful future.

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