04 May Alumnus' plastic fishing lures named a top 10 invention by `Popular Science Magazine'
WHITEWATER – The simplest way to tell the story of University of Wisconsin-Whitewater graduate Ben Hobbins’ achievement is just to say that Popular Science Magazine has ranked his plastic fishing lure one of the magazine’s “Top Ten Inventions of the Year.”
That would be the simplest way, but it would leave out the part about how Hobbins, who received a master’s degree in school business administration from UW-Whitewater in 2004, came to his study of fishing lures by way of an undergraduate education at the Sorbonne in Paris.
Nor would the explanation deal with Hobbins’ earlier academic career in Whitewater — the year he spent on campus in 1981-82 and found that, at that time in his life, he didn’t like studying too much but he did manage to be recognized by the National Collegiate Athletic Association as an All-American Swimmer on the Warhawk swim team.
It wouldn’t even explain why Hobbins decided that skin-graft technology might work to keep 12,000 tons of plastic out of America’s waterways each year.
Or why he is convinced that the same technology he incorporates in his lures may end up “saving lots of lives some day.”
Hobbins is chief executive officer of Lake Resources Group in Waunakee. The company makes IronClad lures, which feature a polymer composite material that won’t rip off a fishing hook.
“I came up with this idea a few years ago when I was at my mother’s house in Madison getting ready to go ice fishing,” Hobbins said. “And I started thinking about how cold my hands get when I have to attach new lures and how much better it would be to have a lure that wouldn’t rip off.”
Now, it’s not that Hobbins suddenly came up with the idea of “plastics.” He had worked for several years as a senior strategist for a biotech firm in the Madison area and he knew he wanted to do something with polymers.
“But it didn’t have to be fishing worms,” Hobbins said. “If I hadn’t been at my mother’s house thinking about cold hands, I might well have branched into something else entirely.”
Having come up with the idea of a super plastic lure, however, Hobbins had to develop the product and market it.
He turned to the Wisconsin Innovation Service Center at UW-Whitewater for a new product assessment, to the Weinert School for Entrepreneurship to help with a business plan and to the University of Wisconsin-Madison Polymer Engineering Center for technical help. Other state and university agencies also helped get IronClad project off the ground.
The Wisconsin Innovation Service Center conducts preliminary market research for manufacturers, technology businesses and independent inventors.
Bud Gayart, director of the center, who, like Hobbins, is an avid fisherman, immediately saw the possibilities in the project.
“Ben came to see us back in 2006 and asked for our help in identifying what products were already out there and if people might value a new kind of bait,” Gayhart said. “He also had a strong interest in keeping all of the work involved here in the United States — and a great success story seems to have come from all that.”
Hobbins says the success is a group effort.
“This has been a story of networking state and local resources to produce superior and innovative projects,” Hobbins said. “Without Bud’s WISC group and other resources an entrepreneur and inventor has at his fingertips in Wisconsin, many innovative project ideas would never get off the ground.”
All of which is true and none of which tells us much about the Sorbonne. But the Sorbonne is part of the Hobbins’ story, as is UW-Whitewater.
“I was on campus in 1981 and 1982 and swam on the swim team,” he said. “Then, I got invited to a football training camp in Europe and they signed me up to play ball there in the Eurobowl League, NFL Europe’s predecessor league — so I was in FranceÂ for more than a decade.”
While in France, Hobbins earned a master’s degree in economics from the Sorbonne, an Executive Master of Business Administration from ESSEC University and, also, played Division I rugby, all while running a sports promotion and export/import business in sportswear and related equipment.
“When I came back, I worked for Gilson, a biotech firm in the Madison area and we worked with a lot of materials,” he said. “Warren Gilson was a brilliant inventor. His engineers and I saw many idea– materials of all kinds — including those used in skin-graft technology take form.”
“Then, one cold day in 2005, I was at my mother’s and was grousing about how my hands would freeze while rigging those plastic lures for ice fishing and I said, `Mom, I think I know how to solve this.,” he said.
Hobbins said the technology used for making fishing lures — it involves embedding microfibers in the soft plastic to form a composite material — should also be useful for other applications, ranging from golf club grips, lawn and garden handles, soft hand holds for use with therapeutic equipment, hospital beds, transportation, military uses — soft, yet durable hand-holds of all kinds.”
“But, really, the technology greatly improves any product that you need to be really soft and, yet, have great strength,” he said. “I think we’re going to see it used in medical technology and I think we will save a lot of lives in the process — it is just so strong and so flexible.”
All which brings us to Popular Science Magazine, which will feature Hobbins and his Iron Clads fishing lure technologies in its June issue.
The magazine selects 10 inventions each year on the basis that they “best represent the spirit of homegrown ingenuity and solve real-world problems in a practical and innovative way.”
Hobbins’ IronClad lures will be presented to the magazine’s seven million readers in its June inventions issue.