Aircraft Mechanic’s Persistence Scores Him ‘Shark Tank’ Deal

By Katie Lange
Defense Media Activity

I once came up with an idea for a new showerhead and thought I was pretty fancy – until I found out it was already a thing and had been for many years. My innovative spirit tanked from there.

Former Ohio Air National Guard Air Force Tech Sgt. Tom Burden was one of the lucky few whose idea was brand new, and it turned into a big success that was featured on the hit TV show “Shark Tank.”

If you just happen to be an aircraft mechanic, chances are good you’ve heard of Grypmat and even used it at this point in life. You can thank Burden for that.

In 2013, the F-16 weapons mechanic almost fell off one of the jets while reaching for a tool that had begun to slide off its curved surface. He needed a way for the tools to stay put and found it when he happened to notice a non-slip mat his mom was using in her car to hold her cellphone.

The mat he needed had to be a little more elaborate, though. It had to hold several tools on a steep angle, be static-free due to the plane’s sensitive electronics, and it needed to be chemical resistant.

Former Air Force Tech. Sgt. Tom Burden, an F-16 Fighting Falcon weapons mechanic assigned to the 180th Fighter Wing, Ohio Air National Guard, posed for a portrait in an aircraft hangar March 12, 2017, in Swanton, Ohio. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Nic Kuetemeyer

Burden tinkered around until he came up with a special polymer-silicone blend that would check all of those boxes, and he enlisted the help of some aircraft electricians to perfect his product – a simple box-like mat with border trays that he named the Grypmat.

The manufacturing process turned out to be much more of a beast (you can read about that in depth here), but he eventually found the right partner, so he began to market his product at trade shows.

Burden got funding through grants and business competitions, but he still struggled with all of the expenses, nearly going bankrupt twice. Making the business work had become his full-time job, and since it wasn’t yet profitable, money became a pretty big, well … burden.

The young inventor faced a lot of doubt during this process and was even technically homeless for a time, sleeping in his car and crashing on the couches of friends and family, but he stayed persistent and determined.

Burden displays his invention, the Grypmat. Photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Shane Hughes

By spring of 2017, the risks he took began to pay off. A Kickstarter campaign for funding was successful, and Burden had begun to promote his product to large distributors like Pep Boys, major aircraft parts distributor Aviall and NASA.

By November, Burden and his product landed on the hit show “Shark Tank,” which gives budding entrepreneurs a chance to market their products and get billionaire investors to back them. After a lot of back-and-forth banter, Burden and three of the “sharks” settled on an offer – for a 30 percent stake in Grypmat, they would give him $360,000 toward his business.

Talk about a major break!

“It’s honestly pretty stressful,” Burden said of the show. “What a lot of people don’t know is that once you make a deal on the show, that just starts the due diligence phase. There’s still a lot left to go through. They have to verify that everything you said on-stage is true, because people go on-stage and lie all the time. Only about 10 percent of the deals that happen on the show actually go through. When you think about the numbers, it’s pretty crazy. More than 60,000 people apply and only 150 will film. If even half of those get a deal, only a tenth of them will actually happen.”

Burden answers questions from friends, relatives, journalists and investors after “Shark Tank” aired his episode. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Shane Hughes

Burden and his investors are now working to build the business, increase manufacturing output and get Grypmat into big-box stores, as well as expand his line of products.

Burden is no longer with the National Guard, but his hard work and determination all occurred while he was still a service member, and they’re a great example for any budding military entrepreneur hoping to get their idea off the ground.

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