Wired In: Mark Van den Avont

Wired In: Mark Van den Avont

Each week, staff writer Paul Wood chats with a high-tech difference-maker. Meet MARK VAN DEN AVONT, a sophomore at the University of Illinois. He decided to create a product, HexNest, to prevent a dangerous problem that affected him — he's OK now — and people in the same situation. The UI has been a big help, he says.

What happened to you that inspired this startup?

The second semester of my senior year in high school, I decided that it would be a good idea to join the gymnastics team. I had never done anything related to the sport before, but for some reason my interest was piqued, and I decided to do one last crazy thing.

Unfortunately, in the practice before the first meet I was going to compete in, I underrotated off my backflip dismount on the high bar and broke two vertebrae in my spine.

What was next in your life?

I am lucky to not have had any permanent spinal damage, but it got me thinking how this and other high-risk sport safety could be improved. I eventually isolated foam products as the most in need of change, and have since developed a composite to replace foam in impact applications. This composite will allow more people to have access to proper safety.

How did HexNest get started?

I had known even before my injury that there were safety concerns with sports that used mats. It just took a good scare to know I needed to stick my neck out for others.

What's the problem with what is available now?

Younger gymnasts have difficulty moving our competitor's large, heavy mats, limiting these mats' function. In addition, the mats are so expensive that gyms often must compromise on their purchases, which puts athletes at a much greater risk for injury.

How much do conventional open-cell-polyurethane mats cost?

The mats vary in price from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Most gyms have between $15,000 and $30,000 worth of foam equipment.

Has the University of Illinois supported you?

Illinois has amazing resources geared towards helping people like me. I received micro-grants when I was just starting so I could prototype, took classes on entrepreneurship, competed in and won two prizes in the Cozad New Venture Competition, and am currently working full time thanks to the iVenture Accelerator.

Do you have any patents?

HexNest's proprietary impact dampening composite is currently patent pending.

What's your best advice for someone who's starting up?

Make sure that you are passionate about what you're are doing. I have met a lot of people who have been in my position before. Every time, the folks that are most successful are the ones who truly love the project they are working on. It doesn't matter if it's a cause you believe in, if you like working a specific type of technology, or if you love the people you are doing it with. Just make sure that you believe in what you are doing enough to push through when things get tough.

TECH TIDBITS ... from MARK VAN DEN AVONT

What's your favorite app? Shazam.

On Facebook I follow ... Nobody! I made a page a few months ago for my company.

What are you reading right now? "Creative People Must be Stopped" by David Owens.

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