Iowa City Press-Citizen: UI Student Bringing Invention to Sports World

Wednesday, April 27, 2011
By Lee Hermiston
Iowa City Press-Citizen
University of Iowa civil engineering student Adam Thompson breaks in a baseball
glove by steaming it in a device he invented at the UI Bedell Entrepreneurship
Learning Lab. Thompson currently has five of the steaming units and hopes to find
a place for them on the youth sports market. Benjamin Roberts / Iowa City
Press-Citizen

Learn more about Adam Thompson's company, KeConWa Sports, at www.KeConWaSports.com.

Adam Thompson is dreaming big.

The 22-year-old University of Iowa engineering student isn't planning to cure cancer or eliminate world hunger, but his goal is no less ambitious.

"I want to offer steamed gloves to every youth baseball player in the world," said Thompson, a Cedar Rapids native.

If Thompson gets his wish, the days of breaking in baseball gloves by soaking them in oil, popping them in the oven or backing over them with a car are over. Instead, baseball and softball gloves will be perfectly broken in in a matter of minutes by a device Thompson invented.

Anyone who has ever purchased a new baseball or softball glove probably is familiar with the issue. The gloves are stiff and rigid, making it nearly impossible to properly catch a ball until they are broken in. However, most methods for breaking in a glove are imperfect. Oils can weigh down gloves and leave them feeling oily. Baking or microwaving gloves can rip the fibers of the leather.

"All the other ways to break in a glove damages the glove," Thompson said.

Though he has never played an inning of baseball, Thompson said he was inspired when he spent time working at Scheels at the Coral Ridge Mall. He saw the frustration on young ballplayers' faces while at the same time learning about a device that sporting goods producer Mizuno gives to retailers with large shipments of gloves that uses steam to break them in.

But Mizuno doesn't seem to have any interest in selling or marketing its product, Thompson said. So, he took it upon himself to build his own while improving on Mizuno's model.

"It can completely break in any baseball glove in under 15 minutes," he said of his device.

For starters, Thompson developed a water-based glove conditioner that is worked into gloves. Other conditioners are oil-based and leave oil and conditioner in the glove. Thompson's version leaves only the conditioner.

After conditioning, Thompson pops the glove in his device, a 14-inch temperature-controlled cube with a water feed on the bottom. Steam fills the box, making leather supple, hydrated and pliable. After three to five minutes, the pocket is broken in to the user's preferences with a mallet.

Thompson said the device also can be used to break in gloves that have dried out while not being used over the winter.

"You can put it in the glove steamer, rehydrate it, and it will get soft again," he said.

The steamer has other applications, such as custom-fitting leather boots, high-end ice skates and even ballet shoes, Thompson said.

Thompson said he hopes to eventually make his invention available to youth sports programs across the country and even the world.

The young entrepreneur is getting help at the University of Iowa's Bedell Entrepreneurship Learning Lab, better known as the BELL. At the BELL, Thompson and other students working on business start-ups get mentoring and other assistance for their projects. The entrepreneurs have access to phones, computers and fax machines in the converted fraternity house across from Burge Hall.

Lynn Allendorf, managing director for the BELL, said the lab helps students write business plans, win seed money through competitions and connect with potential clients and investors.

Since joining the program last year, Thompson has shown maturity and commitment to his project, Allendorf said.

"He seems like he's really doing it and really believes in it and is planning to take it forward," she said.

Thompson said BELL has been invaluable getting his business off the ground.

"I've picked up a lot of great advice just from other students that are in the BELL," he said, adding it "helps keep you focused."

Thompson said he plans to spend time this summer doing demonstrations of his product for youth programs and getting feedback from players. This fall, he'll return to the university where he'll attend graduate school for Urban and Regional Planning.

"I don't have all the time I wish I had to put into my business," he said, noting he's been juggling an 18-hour course load in recent years. "School comes first."