Business Rx: An attempt to replace the snow shovel

Monday, February 7, 2011

The entrepreneurs

Mark Kujawski and Alex Mullineaux can't wait for more snow this winter. They've created a patent pending product that melts snow off outdoor surfaces, which potentially eliminates the need for back-breaking, time-consuming snow shoveling, blowing or plowing. Kujawski, a PhD candidate in the University of Maryland's Department of Materials Science and Engineering, developed the product, while Mullineaux, an MBA candidate, spearheaded the business development side of their company, QuickHeat.

The pitch


"QuickHeat is a new way to deal with ice and snow. It's a permanent melting solution that can be applied in a few hours without any heavy construction and is a fraction of the price of competitors' products. Basically, you paint the product on a driveway, sidewalk, roof, etc., attach a few electrodes that plug into any electrical outlet, and turn it on when snow starts to fall."


"Our target customers are large commercial developers, small-business owners and homeowners. QuickHeat has a number of competitive advantages versus our competitors. It is a fraction of the cost, easier to install, and provides a solution to ice and snow accumulation that can last three to five years depending on how much wear and tear the surface receives. Other solutions cost thousands of dollars to install and require professional installation, but with QuickHeat, the homeowner or business owner can do the installation themselves.

"We are nearing the end of testing, and we think we are ready to make the giant leap to the next phase. Right now, we are looking at the hurdle of when, where and how do we produce our product on a large scale? And then, how do we pitch our idea to a group of investors who are looking for opportunities like the one we are presenting?"

The advice

Asher Epstein, managing director, Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business

"I wouldn't say you should take the giant leap to the next phase quite yet. I recommend getting at least one other beta customer, and if you can get more than one, that is really great. With your current beta tests, you have a small and unpredictable window for testing: December to late February, and only if it snows. You need to wait to make your leap forward to the next phase until you have three to 10 beta customers and know that any do-it-yourselfer or contractor can buy a box of QuickHeat and replicate your success.

"Remember, just because you solve one of the issues you discover in beta testing, such as the conductivity, it doesn't mean you have the whole solution. As a property owner, the solution for me is having no snow or ice. On top of that, I want to save money, reduce my risk and have a high-quality place to park. The conductive material might be perfect, but unless I can cost-effectively produce and maintain it, it isn't a solution to the problem. "Also keep in mind that snow removal is about as old as ice creation. Snow shovels, snow blowers and snowplows all already exist and function as effective snow-removing tools. You have to come in at such a high level of performance because it really is a replacement technology. Focus your energy on more beta testing, and then, come May, June, July, get ready to make the big leap. What you guys have is pretty compelling. You won't get a good investment until the solution is solid, but you've made a lot of progress it seems."

The reaction


"I think more beta testing is probably the right way for us to go right now. Our goal is to be 100 percent effective so our customers can have confidence in the product we are offering them, but we are running into problems with the short window of time available for testing. Once the weather is ideal to easily install QuickHeat, it is too warm for any snow to fall. On the flip side, in testing right now we've applied the product in colder temperatures than we'd like, so it doesn't always settle on the surface the right way. Since we do want that 100 percent effectiveness, I think we will look into getting a few more beta customers."

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