The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at email@example.com.
Bryant University senior and student-athlete Nina Karlin’s love of basketball has powered her creation of a new brand called The Fresh Kick. Karlin’s foam insert was born from her need to keep her sneakers dry, odor-free, and looking their best.
Q. What is The Fresh Kick, and how does it work?
Karlin: The Fresh Kick is a three-in-one shoe accessory that prevents creases, eliminates odors, and absorbs moisture. It has a simple design that’s basically a foam insert. When you’re not wearing your favorite pair of sneakers, you can stick the insert right into your shoes, pushing it against the toe of the shoe.
Q. How often do you have to change out The Fresh Kick?
A. I worked with an engineer who has helped me create two prototypes and a 3D mock-up of the product [Karlin hasn’t completed user testing just yet]. We are talking a lot about using bamboo charcoal because it’s environmentally friendly, reusable, and it would allow you to stick your Fresh Kick out in the sun, and it actually replenishes it close to its original form. The bamboo charcoal helps eliminate odors, and could last about two months. However, my engineer is working with me to see if we can somehow extend that to six months.
Q. How did you come up with this idea?
A. I was a three-sport athlete at Classical High School [in Providence], and now I’m a student-athlete at Bryant that’s constantly changing in and out of sneakers. But I also have some classic, casual sneakers like Vans, and friends who are “sneakerheads” who are constantly discussing this common problem of having odor when their feet sweat.
Q. What is your biggest competition?
A. For creases, there’s Force Field [a plastic piece that is inserted in the toebox of shoes while someone is wearing them]. Lots of people still use newspaper to help deal with moisture. I looked on the market, and found that there were products that could help odors, but they didn’t also help the creasing or absorbing moisture. The Fresh Kick does all three at once.
Q. How much does it cost to make, and how much do you sell it for?
A. I am hoping to sell these to “sneakerheads” and student-athletes, so I’d like to get the price point down to about $15 to $20. But I need to identify a manufacturer to get to that point. I won’t be able to set a price until I can find a manufacturer who can work with the materials and work with me on cost.
Q. How close are you to finding a manufacturer?
A. I’ve called more than 100 different companies in the United States. I’ve yet to find one. I was speaking to my engineer, and I need a manufacturer who works with open-cell foam so the odors can pass through the foam, not stay in the shoe. And it has to be injection-molded [a process in which the factory injects molten material into a mold], instead of die-cut [a process in which a specialized metal tool cuts a specific shape out of a material like glass, foam, paper, or cloth]. I’m really having trouble finding that manufacturer who can do both. But I want to identify one as soon as possible.
Q. How have you raised money to get to where you are now? Do you have a Kickstarter, or investors?
A. I won an entrepreneurship grant for $1,000 at Bryant, which helped me pay for my engineer. I won the Collegiate eCommerce Ignite competition hosted by RIHub and powered by Kanu. People can also preorder The Fresh Kick from Kanu’s website now. I’ve also had several internships, and worked with RIHub, where I’ve been able to lean on those mentorships to help me get to the next phase.
Q. As a young entrepreneur, what do you think would make the process of starting a new company or launching a new product easier in Rhode Island?
A. I’m an Asian Jewish woman entrepreneur who grew up in Rhode Island. There’s not that many of us. I’ve been able to take a stand for who we are in this space. I’m excited to see the trends in business of where Rhode Island is going, but I also think that being such a small city as we are in Providence, we need to do a better job utilizing what we have to make a bigger impact. There’s a ton of universities — Bryant’s business school, [Rhode Island School of Design’s] design offerings, Brown University’s science and engineering departments and medical school — but we don’t all collaborate enough. I think we could all be using each other, pushing ahead ideas, and researching together [not just on specific subjects].