Some innovators develop something completely new. Others take something that everyone thought was working fine and make it better.
Since 1987, the National Football League — and almost every other professional, college and high school football program in America — have used a system called Dial-A-Down. The stick at the line of scrimmage with a number on top, designating first, second, third or fourth down, has been part of football for as long as most anyone can remember. But in 1987, Kansas Citian Jim Egender developed and marketed technology that replaced a clunky metal "flip chart" with the slick sliding numbered panels that are ubiquitous today.
Today, another metro area resident — a friend of Egender's — is seeking to replace that technology with his own. Mike Foster has started Lazser Down, a company that he hopes will produce laser-enhanced down markers that display not only the down but the distance to go for a first down —measured right to the nearest inch. He thinks it could change the game ... and become as ubiquitous as those sliding numerical down markers are today, from the NFL on down.
After 30 years, coaching football at the high school, college and professional levels, Foster never imagined himself as an entrepreneur or techie. But he did know football, and new that something as simple as the down marker could be improved in a way that would have significant impact on the game. He explained how Lazser Down will improve on Dial-A-Down last month on KCUR's Central Standard.
"[Lazser Down] gives instant, precise and objective information," Foster said. "What is different is that on one end of the pole, it has a laser system. Once the ball is spotted by the official, the down box man hits a button that measures the distance in a laser, it comes back, and that is digitally displayed on another readout on the other end. So now you have the down — one, two, three, four — and whatever the distance may be. It goes up to 99 yards."
Foster said that the even though technology could theoretically eliminate the need for the "chain gang" coming out on the field to determine whether a first down has been achieved, the NFL is unlikely to abandon that practice, preferring to maintain dramatic moments and preserve tradition. Still, Foster said, there is a desire for greater consistency and accuracy.
"It's going to be internal, the electronics, but there are no moving parts like the system now. Because one of the problems with the Dial-a-Down — and I'm not speaking out of school here — is that with moving parts it's just going to wear out, " he says.
"They break, the slats and everything. So you get a readout with those two numbers: the down one through four, and the distance whatever that happens to be. And also down below, it will either say yard, feet, or inch, so you know what the increment is."
Foster said the real challenge for him wasn't about football — it was about starting a business. He had help with laser technology from R2FACT, a Kansas City-based firm, and guidance on developing prototypes from Blue Valley's Center for Advanced Professional Studies. His plan moved further with guidance from Digital Sandbox KC and Whiteboard 2 Boardroom, two programs located at the University of Missouri-Kansas City that facilitate innovation and business startups. His patent was approved with the help of local patent attorneys. And soon, he hopes to have a working prototype he can take to the NFL's Competition Committee.
It has been a long journey.
"Football teaches you patience," Foster said. "When you're trying to build a program, not just win in one particular year, to be able to build a program it takes a long period of time. It's just innately part of being a football coach, the patience part of it."
"I'm trying to build a program, not just a one-time thing," Foster said. "I'm trying to grow this."
This interview, which originally aired on KCUR's Central Standard, was part of Innovation KC, a series of conversations about innovation and innovators in Kansas City. To suggest Kansas City innovators for future interviews, send us an email, tweet us, or find us on Facebook.