By Mike Imlay
YEN Launch Pad Helps Propel Young Entrepreneurs
Few automotive specialty-equipment veterans doubt that the industry’s future rests in identifying potential young entrepreneurs and igniting in them the sort of passion and bold innovation that will create a fresh new generation of market leaders. The question is: how? Launching new ideas today is daunting even for large companies with plenty of resources, let alone for young, small-business-minded men and women.
Two years ago, SEMA’s Young Executive Network (YEN) turned considerable attention toward the problem and came up with Launch Pad, a novel program to recruit, support and celebrate entrepreneurs age 40 and younger while giving the best and brightest among them center stage at the annual SEMA Show.
Patterned after television’s reality competition “Shark Tank,” the ambitious program starts each spring with an invitation to YEN-member company owners, presidents or chief-level officers to submit online entry applications along with three-minute videos detailing their new-product or service ideas, which must be fully developed and ready for market. After initial entries pour in, a special YEN task force winnows them down to 10 semi-finalists, posting them on Facebook and YouTube for a summer-long heat in which fans vote for their top five favorite contestants.
Those top finalists are in turn able to personally pitch their innovations to a panel of industry-veteran judges at the annual SEMA Show in Las Vegas. At stake is a grand prize that includes, among other things, a high-profile magazine print-ad package; public relations and social media consultation by Kahn Media; an assortment of other marketing, creative, design, production, inventory and distribution consultations from Taylor Creative Co. and UPS, as well as MAVTV appearances courtesy of Brenton Productions.
Organizers had high hopes for the contest when it debuted in 2013, but no one really knew what to expect. As it turned out, there was no shortage of eager young innovators, making for a lively and extremely successful program. Ultimately, Jonathan Mill, founder of E-Stopp, walked away with the top prize for his inventive pushbutton emergency brake. Although he first developed it for the mobility industry, Mill quickly realized its potential for the custom and hot-rod markets as well. According to Mill, the 2013 Launch Pad competition became a major milestone in introducing his product to the specialty-equipment industry.
“With the  win of the SEMA Launch Pad, I have been fueled with more passion for what I do than ever,” he recently said on his company’s website. “There is a lack of young enthusiasts in this industry, and I see an opportunity for myself to help draw in more. Though I’m not a particular fan of the limelight, I’m hoping it will help launch E-Stopp to a point where it allows me to produce more products and projects I have ideas for.”
SEMA President and CEO Chris Kersting said that Launch Pad may offer some real signs about the future of the industry and who will be among the leaders in innovation.
“Now in its second year, this program is an exciting example of SEMA’s investment in next-generation leadership,” Kersting explained. “With the event becoming a ‘must attend’ for our young professionals at the SEMA Show, we believe that it will be a key element of our efforts to bring in and introduce some of the most talented young people to the industry in Las Vegas each year.”
Indeed, after its successful 2013 debut, Launch Pad delivered another impressive roster of contestants and innovations for 2014. When the social media votes were tallied, the finalists came down to (in alphabetical order) Samuel Giles, Ian Lehn, Sarah Park, Roger Peterson and Jack Zampolin—each of whom represented the wide variety of backgrounds and tremendously fresh ideas that young entrepreneurs are bringing to the industry.
Giles is the managing director of Intellectual Capital Consulting Ltd. and a registered U.S. patent agent. With technical training in physics from the University of Colorado at Boulder, he also carries a bachelor’s degree in information systems and an MBA from the University of Toledo. Drawing on those various experiences allowed him to create and market the Blackhawk RES, a smart-watch remote engine starter, which he calls an “elegant connected-car solution for auto enthusiasts.”
President of BOOSTane Octane Engineering, Lehn picked up his passion for the automotive aftermarket from his stepfather. Taking this passion to Georgia Tech, Lehn became an innovator in its mechanical engineering classrooms, winning the school’s most prestigious design competition three years in a row. In his final school year, Lehn focused his attention on problems associated with fuel-octane reliability, race fuel accessibility and the general effectiveness of octane boosters. The result was the development of BOOSTane, an affordable alternative to racing fuel for individuals who want to restore lost octane points and stabilize the effects of ethanol for engine protection.
Park’s entry to Launch Pad was The Hybrid Haven business model, which she hopes to franchise with her business partner and EV technician Edward Rueda. As co-founder and president of the company, she envisions offering independent repair shop owners unprecedented access to hybrid/EV services, diagnostics, national parts and supply networks and marketing exposure. Park studied the cognitive sciences at the University of California Irvine before starting a career in business development and brand marketing at Nippon Oil Co.
As founder and CEO of MG Research LLC, a company focused on marketing channel research and analytics, Peterson has developed The Enthusiast App, a proprietary mobile app offering end users the world’s first mobile specialty-parts search engine, which matches parts to users, their vehicles and their customization preferences. He believes that his company’s product will contribute significantly to the growth of the specialty-equipment industry.
Meanwhile, RightPSI Vice President of Business Development Zampolin made the final Launch Pad cut with his company’s patented tire cap, which alerts consumers to over- and under-inflation. The product also allows users to fill tires directly through the cap, using it as an air gauge and eliminating the need for a separate, traditional tire gauge. A newcomer to the automotive aftermarket, Zampolin said he’s passionate about the product and excited to expose it to a wider audience of consumers.
For 2014, the SEMA Show Launch Pad competition was hosted by Matt D’Andria, CEO of Motorator.com and currently the co-host of the top-rated podcast “CarCast” with Adam Carolla. D’Andria was joined by a panel of five equally well-known industry judges, including Mark Arcenal, creative director of Illest Brand & Fatlace LLC; Ronald L. Coleman, ownership partner, president and CEO of Comp Performance Group; off-road racer and automotive television personality Jessi Combs of “All Girls Garage,” “Mythbusters” and “Overhaulin’” fame; Doug Evans, executive vice president of aftermarket media for TEN: The Enthusiast Network; and Glenn Rogers, former CEO of Hot Import Nights and CarDomain Network Inc. and currently with Cascadia Capital LLC.
Throughout the program, the judges questioned contestants at length, rating them in three categories: business clarity, product analysis and overall presentation. The 2014 competition was tight all around, and when the judges’ scores were tallied, mere tenths of points separated each presenter. However, Lehn and his BOOSTane formulation were able to inch ahead with just enough percentage points to land in the winner’s circle.
“I’ll tell you the truth, I don’t think [winning] has really sunk in yet,” said Lehn soon after the event. “It’s an honor and privilege to win the SEMA Launch Pad of the year. Unbelievable competition! I think Launch Pad is going to open a whole bunch of doors for us. Our product has only been out since January. We’ve been a part of SEMA for only about a year, and it’s been a whirlwind. I can only thank SEMA that we’ve gotten this far.”
Dan Kahn, founder of Kahn Media and chair of YEN, spoke for the panel: “The SEMA Launch Pad is a program created by YEN to highlight and support the next generation of entrepreneurs in our industry, and we couldn’t be happier with the results, connecting young talent with established industry professionals. For the past two years, this event has offered a unique opportunity for industry icons to be positioned alongside the best and brightest young talent in an event where everyone leaves a winner. We’re especially excited for Ian Lehn and look forward to helping him take advantage of the benefits of being the top 2014 SEMA Launch Pad innovator.”
As Kahn noted, Launch Pad is built around an “everyone is a winner” philosophy—a fact not lost on finalists such as Peterson, who says the competition came at exactly the right moment to give him and The Enthusiast App the lift-off they needed. Last summer he faced the seemingly insurmountable task of organizing a marketing strategy ahead of his new app’s launch. Seeking assistance, he turned to the business incubator program at the University of Central Florida (UCF), an experience that only underscored the hurdles he’d face in bringing his idea to fruition.
“I was specifically told that I needed more market validation and [should] address this challenge,” Peterson recalled. “As I drove back home from the meeting, I really felt like pulling off my first marketing campaign was going to be an uphill battled. As I pondered what to do next, within 10 minutes of leaving the UCF campus, I received a blast e-mail from YEN asking if any entrepreneurs had innovative ideas they would like to submit for the SEMA Launch Pad program. It was divine intervention!”
Even though he didn’t win the competition, Peterson called his Launch Pad experience “magical” from beginning to end.
“SEMA saw our [company’s] potential, and being qualified as having one of 10 top innovative ideas was all the validation one could ask for,” he said. “As someone who left a career in engineering 10 years ago to pursue this dream, I deal with anxiety from uncertainty every step of the way. The entire Launch Pad experience provided my team and me with a lot of momentum and a great deal of confidence in our goal. The SEMA Launch Pad officials were, and continue to be, very helpful. This has made the sleepless nights easier to bear.”
RightPSI’s Zampolin agreed that just participating in Launch Pad can be a major boost for the development and marketing of products created by young entrepreneurs.
“We are coming to market in the next couple of months, so this was a great opportunity to get some exposure,” he said. “It also introduced me to a number of people who are very interested in our product. The experience was fantastic. I really enjoyed making our video. Our Kickstarter backers gave us a lot of support and pushed us through to the finals, which were exciting and challenging. It’s not every day that you get to get up in front of that many people. The contestants all had great ideas and were awesome competitors.”
Like Peterson, the competition left Zampolin with a lofty view of Launch Pad’s ability to both promote and support young business starters.
“If you are in the auto industry and launching a new product, there are not any other similar places I know of where you can get in front of industry veterans and ask for advice,” he said.
Bryan Harrison, SEMA senior manager of councils, credits Launch Pad not only with raising industry awareness of young entrepreneurs but advancing their mentorship and inclusion in company leadership and succession plans.
“It’s easy to identify a topic such as young entrepreneurship as a priority,” he said. “It’s far harder to execute a meaningful deliverable to support such an initiative. Launch Pad represents a genuine action to improve business conditions for young leaders and is a solid sign that, as an association, we really do care.”
Chalk Peterson up as a true believer as well.
“I saw participants benefit in so many ways,” he said. “From sales opportunities to deal offers, prizes, elite networking opportunities, publicity—you name it, Launch Pad offers it all. What will it do for the next entrepreneur? I don’t know, but I do know that the experience is transformational and one worth having.”