PANAMA CITY BEACH -- When a mine collapses or explodes, miners inside need a supply of fresh air to help them escape.
To breathe, miners often use a device called a self-escape respirator, a vest that comes with its own air supply. The problem, said local inventor and former Navy diver Rob Moran, is that the current vests are not very good.
"The devices have run so hot that when you breathe from them, you burn your mouth, so you have a choice of burning your mouth, esophagus and lungs and surviving or taking your chances," Moran said. "You can't win. We wanted to give people a device that would work."
Moran and his partner, Dave Cowgill, have redesigned the rebreather, creating a model they say is lighter, cooler and advances the technology. The vest has been patented, a prototype created, and is currently in the certification process. If it passes certification, a seller is ready to bring the product to market.
"They will have no choice but to buy it, as it will be the only certified vest" of its kind, Moran said. "The market is already there."
The Center for Disease Control division of Mine Safety and Health Research has been looking for someone to develop a better self-escape respirator. In 2012, they agency posted a list on its website about what features they thought the device should ultimately have.
The device Cowgill and Moran created has every must-have from this list. However, when they originally started the project, they weren't thinking about miners.
They were thinking about soldiers.
Cowgill, who also was a Navy diver, was listening to feedback from soldiers returning from the Middle East about how it was difficult to breathe from a gas mask. Cowgill then had an idea to use the closed-circuit technology design utilized in scuba technology to create a better tool for soldiers.
As he tinkered with his designs, he bounced ideas off Moran.
"We worked together, and he would come to me with questions like, 'What should I do with this?' and I would give him an answer and it would work. This just kept happening," Moran said. "On the third time, I said, 'Let's become partners. We can build this.' "
Along the way, a researcher at the Mine Safety and Health division became aware of their designs and asked if they would be interested in developing the technology for miners. Realizing the need and opportunity, they agreed.
The company incorporated in November 2014 and has since set to develop both the closed-circuit escape vest and their company, which is now five people based out of an office on Panama City Beach.
"Why sit at home and do nothing when you can do this?" said employee and former Navy diver Frank Hernandez. "It's a challenge."
The team has been working with the Advanced Technology Center (ATC) at Gulf Coast State College. Perhaps the biggest help the center gave them, Moran said, was using the 3-D printers to create test parts.
"Rob Moran is a rapidly rising star in Bay County's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem," said ATC Dean Steve Dunnivant. "His strategies for bringing an idea from a concept into a thriving business provide a great pathway for others to follow."
Moran said the key to his success is, in some ways, not knowing the "proper" way to do things.
"I didn't know I wasn't supposed to talk to capital investors until year three and that I wasn't supposed to be asking for that kind of money until year five," he said. "But I did it, and it worked."
After the device goes to market, the company hopes to expand to other products, including revisiting the idea of making a device for soldiers, Moran said.