Greg Driskell is passionate about making the world safer.
As president of Professional Pavement Products, he leads a company whose mission is to make roadways safer.
More than 34,000 people died on U.S. roadways in 2012, according to the most recent statistics available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Yet roadway safety issues go relatively unnoticed.
“If you’re talking 100 aircraft going down a year you certainly would stand up and do something about it,” Driskell said. “We get wrapped up too much in statistics and not the people.”
Driskell views each traffic fatality as a loved one lost. Whether they are a mother, brother, father, sister or friend, someone will miss them when they are gone.
That’s why he scours the market for roadway safety products that will make the world safer, such as traffic signs and guardrails. He also looks for gaps, that is unresolved safety issues that PPP can address by designing products and having them manufactured by someone else.
As founder and president of PPP, Driskell is also passionate about entrepreneurship and innovation. He knows that good ideas that are executed well and thoroughly protected by the nation’s patent system are the bedrock upon which companies are built and jobs are created.
“This is a way that we can protect our ideas and concepts,” Driskell said. “Otherwise the big guys in Asia will run away with it.”
PPP’s new Median-Alert product emanated from Driskell’s passions for both safety and innovation. The Jacksonville company has quickly brought to market a retroreflective road marking system to decrease accidents involving medians—backed by a patent that will protect American jobs.
In just a few months, Median-Alert has won a top safety industry award for innovation and has become a popular purchase among transportation departments. PPP sold out of its first production run of 500 units before they were done.
“The drive is the gap. There’s nothing out there that fills the need this does,” Driskell said.
The gap took a while to fill though, and Driskell learned much about product development through the process.
Driskell set about researching ways to prevent collisions with medians after he and his daughter hit one while driving one night. The “less than conspicuous median” was at a point where the road narrowed from four lanes to two lanes.
Medians are important because they provide controlled access to business, roadways and provide a pedestrian refuge for crossing the street. “But if you can’t see them they do more harm than good,” Driskell said.
He and his daughter walked away unharmed and with little damage to their car, but Driskell worried that they could have hit a pedestrian if one had been standing in the median.
So, he took more than 20 years of roadway safety experience and set about creating a device that would make medians “dramatically more visible in the night time.”
Because retroreflective materials are designed to reflect light back to its source—in this case a headlight—the more aligned an approaching vehicle is with the Median-Alert system, the brighter the warning becomes. When affixed to the median, the retroreflective material provides visibility that is 10,000 times greater than that of paint with glass beads, and its colors contrast so that the device is visible in daytime as well.
Also, unlike, for example, reflective paint that fades, reflective bumpers that unstick or distracting signs, Median-Alert provides a lasting means of clearly conveying the size and shape of a looming median at night.
As he was designing Median-Alert, Driskell knew that he would need to protect his idea. “I didn’t want it to get knocked off and leave me in the dust,” he said.
So, he hired a patent attorney who he found through the North Florida Inventors Group. The attorney warned him that it could take years to secure a patent but it only took six months.
“If I was an astrologer, I would say all of the stars were aligned,” Driskell said. The following factors worked in his favor, he said.
- He had a co-inventor who was more than 65 years old, so the government had to respond to their patent application within a year.
- They included more than a dozen features in their application. “The more you have the more likely you’re going to get a patent,” Driskell said. “It’s hard to get a broad patent.”
- They used an experienced attorney. Officials quickly rejected Driskell’s first submission but his attorney successfully appealed the decision by citing prior case history, amending the application, refuting the government’s claim that the devise was unpatentable because it was obvious, and claiming that the agent who had issued the denial did not follow due process in making his decision.
- “I thought for sure the guy was just going to blow up, but I thought, ‘Well at last it will remain in pending status,’” which would discourage competitors from copying the product, Driskell said.
- They appealed the decision in late 2013, when the only way the agent could close it by the end of the year would be to approve the patent. “He thought he would get by with an easy kill. But he came to his senses and saw that we knew what we were talking about,” Driskell said.
With the patent approved, Driskell started promoting Median-Alert at trade shows. It won second place in the American Traffic Safety Services Association’s 2014 Innovation Awards in February. Winners were chosen at ATSSA’s 44th Annual Convention and Traffic Expo, in San Antonio, Texas, by a team of judges that included roadway engineers and safety experts.
“They’ve come up with an incredibly innovative product,” ATSSA spokesman James Baron said. “They can start installing something like this quickly and at a low cost, and they can immediately start reducing accidents.”
The need is evident in that medians often are covered with marks from tires, Baron said. “We have people running off the road and medians are one of those things people can run into.”
A motorist could also drive into a pedestrian if one is standing in the median. Florida has three of the deadliest cities in the country for pedestrians. Metropolitan Orlando, Tampa-St. Petersburg and Jacksonville ranked first, second and third respectively in terms of the rate of pedestrian deaths in 2000 to 2009 relative to the amount of walking in that area, according to a 2011 study by Transportation for America.
“We’re not really walking cities, so we’re not really geared for it,” Driskell said. “You would think more people would die in New York City but it’s a walking city. They’re familiar with that process and they put up the proper safety measures.”
Median-Alert is becoming one of those safety measures that protects pedestrians nationwide, as PPP is making inroads with local and transportation departments. Driskell is turning an idea that emanated from an incident of frustration into a product that could well exceed his conservative projection of $300,000 in sales in the first year, and perhaps even his stretch goal of $1.25 million.
“There’s a huge gap there. The reason is when you have a product like this you want to be as realistic as you can on your budget goals,” Driskell said.
But his peers in the roadway safety industry have been awed by how simple yet effective Median-Alert is, and sales are surging accordingly.
“The response we’re getting is so overwhelming in terms of the product,” Driskell said. “It’s like a fly swatter on the forehead. People are saying, ‘Why didn’t I think of this?’”
Driskell would be among the first to admit that converting an idea into a product and protecting it with a patent is harder than one might imagine. But he also will attest that saving lives and supporting jobs by pursuing his passions for safety and innovation has been worth the effort.
1) Create a plan
“Developing a product is like developing a mini business. You have to design a business plan for the product.”
“Everyone has good ideas. You have to go out and implement those ideas.”
2) Consider impact and ease
“Every time I look at a product or opportunity I look at how much impact it can have and how easy it is. I’m going to do the one with the most impact and easiest to use.
“Impact doesn’t have to be just economical. Ease is about speed to market, upfront costs and the resources that need to be used to do it.”
3) Start with a high margin
“If you can’t start with a high margin you might as well as not start the project because the margin gets dwindled away. Everything you do costs money.
“If you start out with something with an OK margin you’re going to be really hurting by the end of the development of the product.”
4) Protect your idea
“Patenting is a very important part of innovation in the United States. If we can’t depend on a patent process, we’re not going to be innovative.
“I wouldn’t spend money or time if I thought it would be knocked off.”
5) Work the process
”The simpler you make it the easier it is to knock off and the harder it is to patent. This puts you in a predicament as an innovator. So, you may start building in complexities intentionally.”
6) Bring passion
“Always have passion in your profession. Not necessarily have a profession that you’re passionate about. Sometimes if you’re not a business owner it can be hard to have a profession that you have a passion about but you can always put passion into your profession.”
7) Give back
”We have found a local organization that we’re going to contribute profits to. People are more motivated to put their heart behind it.
“Someone also told me years ago, ‘A patent is not as secure as you think it is. I find a wonderful organization I can support with the profits of my products, then if somebody big steps in and tries to work around my patent they’re not only taking money out of my pocket they’re taking money out of the pocket of the people we’re supporting. It can be a PR nightmare.”
8) Find leverage
“Every action should have more than one reaction. I’m searching for something I can do that can have multiple returns (e.g morally, on community and professionally).”