Photographs by Dean Mackenzie
When Keith Alexander realised a childhood dream, he also created a global business and managed to relax thousands of nervous parents.meets a very innovative academic
When Dr Keith Alexander was a student at Auckland Grammar, bouncing on the new school trampoline was strictly rationed.
"The gym teacher would say, 'Right, four jumps and you're off!' I thought tramps were really cool and I dreamed of making my own. I found I could get this stretchy rubber stuff and canvas, but I never got around to doing it—not then, anyway."
Fast forward a few decades and Alexander, now associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Canterbury, came up with a revolutionary new trampoline based on flexible fibreglass rods rather than metal springs.
This time around, bouncing is encouraged. Annual global sales of the Springfree trampoline are expected to hit 100,000 by 2012 and it has picked up design awards in New Zealand and Australia. This year it also won the Children's Product of the Year category in the International Design Awards, based on a survey of 100,000 American consumers.
Alexander began working on the project in the late 1980s after his wife vetoed buying a trampoline for the family because she felt they were too dangerous. More than 80 percent of injuries on traditional trampolines are caused by jumpers bouncing off the apparatus or falling onto the steel trampoline frame or springs. Alexander removed those hazards by doing away with the springs and enclosing the jump mat with flexible built-in net walls.
"As a hobby I built an inflatable one," says Alexander. "It was essentially an inner tube with a mat stretched across the top. It was a bit like a bouncy castle." It was clever and safe, but far too expensive to produce commercially, so Alexander and his engineering students came up with various other designs before a colleague suggested they try fibreglass.
"I made a little kebab-stick version in my garage to make sure it didn't totally screw up or collapse, because I couldn't get my head around how it would actually work."
The family backyard soon became a testing ground filled with up to five trampolines at a time and with the kids pressed into service as jumpers. Alexander has a photo of his son William at age ten bouncing around in his pajamas under a spotlight. "We had to have an answer to some problem and he was jumping on the edge to see if he could make the rods come out."
When Alexander finally came up with what he thought was a saleable product, the university's marketing arm, Canterprise, told him he'd need to spend another $100,000 before the trampoline would be market-ready. "I was pretty depressed about it at that stage."
But Alexander plugged on and, through Canterprise, was introduced to Canadian entrepreneur Steve Holmes who injected some money into the project, bought the intellectual property rights and went on to sell the trampolines in Canada.
Holmes' company has marketing rights for North American markets while the licence to sell to Australasia, Eastern Europe, South East Asia and the Middle East belongs to Springfree New Zealand, owned by Doug Hill. The local company also handles manufacturing through its Christchurch base and factory in China, and is contracted to do R&D.
Hill, the founder of Network Dynamics, had managed Springfree's engineering development phase and had prior manufacturing experience in China. He says all the Springfree fibreglass and the plastic components are still made here and shipped to China for assembly.
That's because Gisborne-based Pultron Composites is the only company in the world able to make the fibreglass rods to the precise specifications necessary to meet safety and performance standards. "We get other pultruders saying they can build them cheaper," says Hill, "but we try them and they break."
Then there is the IP protection issue. "Patents are all very well but you have to be able to enforce them, and China is not an easy place to do that."
To begin with Springfree used a contract assembler in China, but the American owners looked like selling up so Hill opened his own factory in China in 2009. He reckons Springfree is "the BMW or Mercedes Benz of the trampoline market" and he's targeting high-income families concerned about quality and safety. "We've had a lot of success in Austria, Poland and in Dubai where there are a lot of expats with a lot of dough." And Australia, he says, looks likely to crack down on imports of cheap, low-quality trampolines, which should boost Springfree sales.
“I made a litle kebab-stick version in my garage to make sure it didn't totally screw up or collapse, because I couldn't get my head around how it would actually work”
Although Alexander has no financial interest in the company, he is still very much in the picture as a Springfree consultant. The company paid for his family to accompany him to China, an experience that inspired daughter Kate, a Canterbury political science graduate, to study Mandarin at a university in Guangzhou.
"If that's all that had come out of the project, it was worth it. I get two trips to the US a year to go to the [American Society of Testing and Materials] trampoline standards meeting, which benefits my work and means I can do side trips to other researchers there."
A quick look at Alexander's CV explains why this man is definitely no ivory tower academic. He dropped out of university to work for Volunteer Service Abroad in the Solomon Islands, and trained and worked as a primary school teacher before completing degrees in science and engineering. He developed wool presses for the wool industry, followed by a stint at Hamilton Jet, and currently mentors Martin Jetpack inventor Glenn Martin.
Alexander says that real-world experience has taught him important lessons about the lengthy development phase required to turn a good idea into a commercial proposition. "Academics don't get this at all. People without the experience would tend to think you do the research and when you have something working in the lab, you can sell it and some investor will make $1 million out of it."
Alexander is currently working on "home help devices"—he won't elaborate for commercial reasons—and a snow probe avalanche predictor, currently in prototyping. "We're doing a product that was up to prototype 13. The customer says change this and this and this, so we're up to prototype 14."
Product development, he says, has a lot in common with raising children. "The moment of conception is quite exciting, then you carry it and feed it for years. Eventually when it's a teenager it might meet up with the right people and make a life of its own, but you are always attached. It's like a Chinese proverb: 'No matter how high you fly, your parents are still holding the string.' It's like that with kids and with products."
Sadly, Alexander's ongoing technical work for Springfree doesn't include testing the product, thanks to a back problem. "Now that I have a trampoline, I can't bounce on it."