LARGO — When Joe Sleppy was 16, his mom’s carpal tunnel gave him an idea for an invention he now hopes to turn into a lucrative career. It also won him the first Next Generation Entrepreneurs Award, a $10,000 grant from the Pinellas Education Foundation to put toward achieving that goal.
Now, the 17-year-old Osceola High School senior is working on patenting his product — exercise equipment for physically-challenged people — and the Education Foundation is looking for the next $10,000 idea. Pinellas County high school juniors and seniors may submit applications for the grant until Oct. 18 in hopes of becoming one of 10 semifinalists who receive business training and mentoring in the year-long competition.
Sleppy said the key to beating out the competition is showing passion and excitement for your idea, something that came easily to the young engineer.
His mother, a second-grade teacher at Lakewood Elementary School, developed carpal tunnel and had surgery on her wrists, leaving her unable to lift more than two pounds at a time. Sleppy could help his mother by doing dishes or bringing in groceries, but there was no way for her to continue her workout routine without putting weight on her hands.
Sleppy knew how frustrating a physical limitation could be. The 17-year-old is a swimmer, runner and baseball player, but also is deaf and has Type 1 diabetes. He has had to power through diabeties-inflicted pain and emergencies in the pool and can’t hear his swim coach when he is underwater, instead having to rely on reading lips of other swimmers. There are technological devices to help people exercise who have had amputations, he said, but not for people who have age-induced pain or other more common ailments.
“What about people who are older, so their wrists are weaker, or they have arthritis or a sore back or they’re obese?,” Sleppy said. “Somebody could help them, and that’s what I’m trying to do. The dream is giving everybody, regardless of what physical challenge they have, an equal opportunity to work out.”
Sleppy began work on a device that could take the weight off his mothers’ hands while she exercised, and created a plastic prototype using the 3-D printer in Osceola High’s engineering room. After hearing about the grant through the school’s entrepreneurship program, he entered the competition of about 80 applicants in April and judges and local businessmen “really liked its potential,” he said. The invention actually works, he said, and his mother still uses it during her workouts.
Now, Sleppy is using his grant money to create more prototypes of his device to market to companies, compiling surveys from people who would use his equipment and writing a patent for his work. The remainder of the money paid for a website, logo and the myriad fees that accompanied starting his own legal business — SleppSolutions, LLC.
Receiving the award also enabled Sleppy to get in touch with business professionals who helped guide him through the process of marketing his invention. Now younger engineering students recognize Sleppy, or “the push-up guy,” in the hallways at school and aspire to similar success.
Of course, he also has to maintain his straight-A grades, keep up with his job as a Publix cashier and complete college applications — he hopes to study mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech or Stanford. His school schedule sometimes gets in the way of business calls and his age makes it difficult to meet some legal requirements for his business without help from a parent. But being a high school student also gives him an advantage, he said.
“Everybody hoorahs when they find out I’m only 17, and it’s given me tons of support,” Sleppy said. “Life is full of infinite opportunities which create infinite possibilities. I learned that anything can happen and just because we’re high schoolers, that doesn’t mean nothin’.”
By the end of the year, Sleppy said, he thinks his product might be ready and then “it’s on to the next idea.”