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Wingman, a skinny flotation jacket, wins business plan contest

Wingman, a skinny flotation jacket, wins business plan contest

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When a man drowned during a triathlon that Pat Hughes was also competing in several years ago, it was a life-changing moment for the shaken Hughes.

“It seemed like a very preventable tragedy,” Hughes said.

So Hughes and suburban Milwaukee high school classmate Mike Fox set out to develop what they envision as “the world’s thinnest, most versatile life jacket.”

Their product, the Wingman, won the top award Wednesday for their startup company, Hyde, at the 2016 Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan contest.

“It means a ton,” said Hughes, a 2012 UW-Madison School of Business graduate.

“It’s nice to get recognition from the local support network in Wisconsin,” he said.

The short flotation vest weighs only 11/2 pounds, fits over the head and goes about halfway down the chest. It sits flat — until it’s needed, when a rip cord inflates the device.

“You reach for your heart and pull,” Hughes said.

He said sports have come a long way in recent years, but safety devices have not kept up. The idea was to make a flotation jacket “as minimalist as possible” and useful by anyone from swimmers and surfers to anglers and kayakers.

He said he and Fox have been bootstrapping the young company, working part-time jobs in finance and taking advance orders on Kickstarter — $67,000 worth of orders.

Certified by the U.S. Coast Guard, the Wingman is being manufactured by an unnamed sportswear company. Hughes said the first production run should be ready within weeks.

Winners of the Governor’s Business Plan competition were announced at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference closing luncheon at the Alliant Energy Center. Hyde won first place in the advanced manufacturing category. Other first-place category winners were:

  • Business services: Complete Phytochemical Solutions, Cambridge — Expertise for nutritional supplements.
  • Information technology: POLCO, Madison — Polling analytics for public policy.
  • Life sciences: LynxBio, Madison — Technology to find the best treatment for individual blood cancer patients.

The contest drew 206 entries from 62 communities statewide. Winners receive cash and services — exact amounts are not disclosed by the Wisconsin Technology Council, which coordinates the competition.

Last year’s grand prize winner was bluDiagnostics, with a product to test for a woman’s fertility by checking hormone levels in her saliva.

In the past year, the young company has raised $1.2 million from investors and is still working on a final design for its product, the Fertility Finder, said co-founder Katie Brenner, who also attended the 2016 award luncheon.

“This is really where it all began for us,” said Brenner.

BluDiagnostics went on to win the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce’s Pressure Chamber and the Doyenne Group’s 5X5X5 competitions last summer.

The company’s hormone testing technology was recently featured in Science Daily, and bluDiagnostics is a finalist in the WomenWhoTech pitch contest in San Francisco next week.

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