- Associated Press - Sunday, March 4, 2018

DECATUR, Ill. (AP) - The idea came to Ryan Birt in a late-night eureka moment.

Birt, Millikin’s wrestling coach, was an NCAA Division III national wrestling champion and football player at Upper Iowa University at the time. He’d injured his elbow when a helmet slammed into it, and during his rehabilitation was unable to use a straight bar to lift weights.

As a substitute, Birt turned to lifting the circular plates that go at the end of the bars, but those hurt his joints.

“(Circular plates) don’t bend or work around the body and you can’t grip it,” Birt said. “My college wrestling coach told me to either suck it up or find a better way to do it.”

The solution woke him from a deep sleep.



“It was 3 a.m. and I had this vision,” Birt said. “I’m a visual person so I could see it in my head, but I’m not an artist so I couldn’t put it on paper.”

Birt eventually found someone to draw it, then patented it and had a prototype made in Decatur with the help of company co-owner Dan Butler. The result is what is now known as the Birt Plate. It’s partially manufactured in Decatur and already has some big-time clients, including the University of Illinois, the Indiana Pacers, Ball State University and the Iowa Army National Guard.

It is a growing part of the economy. Americans annually spend an estimated $33 billion on athletic equipment and $19 billion on gym memberships, according to a September survey of 1,000 U.S. adults by personal finance website CreditCards.com.

Birt hopes his invention will revolutionize the strength-training segment, much like University of Florida doctor Robert Cade created the sports drink market when he concocted a drink to help keep players from getting dehydrated - Gatorade - and the way former Chicago Blackhawks center Stan Mikita changed the hockey stick market did when he designed a large bend at the end of a hockey stick that became the “banana stick.”

Mikita took the inspiration from a broken hockey stick end and the adjustment made for faster slap shots. The banana stick became the modern standard in the NHL. Birt said he sees the same potential for the Birt Plate.

“(The workout) can be more intense because of the safety of it - you are never going to put your body in jeopardy while using this plate,” Birt said. “We have over 200 exercises that can be done with just the weight alone. You don’t need the bar.

“And the plate will never go bad. You could hit it with your car and it would be fine. That’s your gym membership fees for the rest of your life.”

Decatur has a long history with inventions. Hieronymus Mueller, who settled in Decatur in 1857, and his sons claimed more than 500 patents, many related to water devices, for example.

In his case, Birt said many wrestlers use plate workouts. But there’s no grip on a circular plate, making it difficult to hold when sweating. Plus, because of the shape, certain lifts were either impossible or would force users to put their bodies in bad positions, causing back strain.

The shape of the Birt Plate - an “H” with a hole in the middle for a bar - allows body parts such as the neck or legs to fit in the spaces, opening up a much wider selection of workouts.

“The only thing you could really do with round plates is put it on a bar and lift it,” said Verneil Phillips, Millikin’s grounds manager and part of a collection of Millikin employees, known as the “Noon Group,” with whom Birt trains three times a week.

“With the Birt Plate, there are multiple uses to do individual workouts with each individual plate,” Phillips said. “You can’t grip a round plate to your chest - you would feel uncomfortable. (The Birt Plate) lets your arms get wrapped inside there and hold onto it firmly.”

Although the idea for the Birt Plate came like a flash, the distance from idea to prototype took several years. In that time, Birt graduated from Upper Iowa and began a wrestling coaching career at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa.

It was on a recruiting trip to the Decatur area that Birt met Butler, his future business partner and the man that would help make the Birt Plate a reality.

“I was recruiting a Mount Zion wrestler, Joe Butler, and his dad is Dan Butler, who’s the President of Morgan Distributing here in Decatur,” Birt said. “When I was recruiting him I told them I had this idea and I would love to train myself and my boys with it.”

Quickly, the idea went from dream to design and the name was born.

“One night we were sitting down and he tells me his idea,” Butler said. “I drew it on a napkin and then to the legal pad.

“Then my wife Jodi, Ryan and myself tried to come up with a name. We decided ‘Birt‘ was just strange enough to stick.”

It was on a recruiting trip to the Decatur area that Birt met Butler, his future business partner and the man that would help make the Birt Plate a reality.

“I was recruiting a Mount Zion wrestler, Joe Butler, and his dad is Dan Butler, who’s the President of Morgan Distributing here in Decatur,” Birt said. “When I was recruiting him I told them I had this idea and I would love to train myself and my boys with it.”

Quickly, the idea went from dream to design and the name was born.

“One night we were sitting down and he tells me his idea,” Butler said. “I drew it on a napkin and then to the legal pad.

“Then my wife Jodi, Ryan and myself tried to come up with a name. We decided ‘Birt‘ was just strange enough to stick.”

Butler was adamant that Birt needed to patent his idea before moving forward, so they went to a patent attorney.

“Little did we know there is nothing like it in the world,” Birt said. “Not just the United States, the world.”

In 2015, Birt took the Millikin wrestling coach job, re-starting the program - dormant since 2008 - and quickly built it into a conference contender.

With Birt based in Decatur, he and Butler continued the process of getting Birt Plates into production. Micro Tek Pattern in Decatur, which manufactures pattern and core tooling for the metal casting industry, made the original pattern and now features it on its web site.

Birt had hoped to have the plates produced in Decatur, but production costs were three times cheaper using a foundry in Coolidge, Texas. There, the cast iron is poured, formed and then shipped to Machine Works, a Decatur company that bores the holes. The plates are then shipped to another Decatur company, Stripmasters Services, which powder-coats the plates.

Jodi Butler takes orders and handles billing, banking and collections, with Birt in charge of sales and demonstrations. When an order is placed, Birt boxes it up and ships it via UPS.

Birt made personal visits to Illinois and Ball State, convincing the wrestling programs at both schools that they could benefit from Birt Plates. Birt said the Indiana Pacers‘ training staff discovered the plates through Facebook.

The Millikin Noon Group has been using the Birt Plates for a year. Michael Kuropas, Millikin’s director of facilities, said he’s lost 45 pounds through his workouts with the Birt Plates.

I’ve worked with round plates in high school and college a little bit,” Kuropas said. “They tend to roll, they tend to be a little in the way. With the round plates you are fighting to maintain control of it whereas this has the handles and wide grips.

“I’m not sure of the home market he is able to break into yet with it but I know a couple of us are interested in taking some of them home and using them at the apartment or whatever because they are very versatile.”

Finding additional markets is Birt Plates’ next challenge. It’s a three-person operation, and all three have jobs outside the company, which makes dedicating time to marketing difficult.

Birt said while he hopes to Birt Plates make headway in the multi-billion dollar global weight training industry, seeing it help those in the Noon Group has already been a reward.

“To watch one of the guys come down and lose nearly 50 pounds. To watch one of the other guys who’s 60 years old and he’s lost 28 pounds and he says he hasn’t been in that good a shape in 15 to 20 years - I feel like I’m making a difference for these guys,” Birt said. “I sleep well knowing that we aren’t just making a difference with kids, we are making a difference with everybody.”

___

Source: (Decatur) Herald & Review, http://bit.ly/2EpbKJC

___

Information from: Herald & Review, http://www.herald-review.com

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide