An Air Force Veteran Created His Own Tool Tray. Now It's a $4 Million Business

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(Tom Burden via Twitter)

Necessity is the mother of invention, as the saying goes. As an F-16 Fighting Falcon mechanic, Tom Burden needed a way to keep his tools from slipping. He was also studying mechanical engineering at the time, so he decided to engineer his own solution.

After a Kickstarter campaign and an appearance on "Shark Tank," the airman's burden became Burden's business. The Grypmat was born, and so was a young entrepreneur.

Burden joined the Ohio Air National Guard in 2008, stationed with the 180th Fighter Wing in Swanton, Ohio, near the University of Toledo, where he took his engineering classes.

The 29-year-old airman loves his work -- he's still in the Air Force, maintaining aircraft M61A1 machine guns -- but before the Grypmat, it could be frustrating. Burden wasn't simply stooping down to pick the tools up. Every time one of them fell to the ground from where he was working, he would have to go out to the wing, climb seven feet down a ladder, and look for it. And hope it hadn't broken on impact.

Worse yet, if he were in the middle of a complicated fix, he might have to ask someone to go pick it up for him or run and get a new tool. And he definitely couldn't hold all his tools in his hands.

His fellow airmen told him it was just part of the job, something he'd have to get used to. But the engineer in Burden couldn't live with that frustration.

After a couple of failed ideas, including a magnetic vest and tools on strings, he remembered the mat on the dashboard of his mother's car.

So the airman created an orange mat, which not only gripped the wing but allowed tools to grip to the mat.

As it turned out, Burden wasn't the only one who needed that solution. The Ohio native now has $4 million in projected revenues and a plan to take the mat into retail stores.

It was even one of Time Magazine's Best Inventions of the Year in 2018, and Burden was named to Forbes' 30under30 list of the world's top young entrepreneurs.

The mat didn't happen overnight. Engineers tend to fiddle with things until they find the perfect solution. Burden took three years to engineer the Grypmat. And like many entrepreneurs, he mortgaged his home and went into debt to get the idea off the ground.

In 2016, he went to the EAA AirVenture trade show with a car full of Grypmats to drum up interest and spread the word. He did everything he could to sell his product but only sold 101 from his trade show booth.

Finally, an automotive distributor heard about the product and bought his entire stock. From there, he raised more capital to produce more mats. First he raised $700,000 on Kickstarter (in just 10 hours) and then $360,000 from Mark Cuban, Lori Greiner and Richard Branson on "Shark Tank" -- in exchange for a 30% stake in the venture, of course.

Tom Burden on ABC's "Shark Tank." (American Broadcasting Company)

The Grypmat doesn't just grip tools, it grips the smooth contours of an aircraft and will resist any chemical in contact with the rubber surface. For aircraft maintainers, the Grypmat is completely static-free and holds up against chemical agents used to de-ice airplanes.

But you don't have to work for the Air Force, NASA, Google, Virgin or NASCAR (just a few of the places that use the Grypmat) to get one -- Burden now sells them on Amazon.

There are many versions of the mat, with multiple sizes for uses outside of aircraft hangars. The home version is cheaper because it doesn't have to resist those chemicals, perfect for anyone working in the garage or around the house.

That's a pretty good bullet for his annual performance review.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com.

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