Look behind the desk in Mike Burns' Ann Arbor office and you'll see the iterations of an inventor's mind: cardboard cut-outs, plastic and foam forms, sketches on paper and other materials. All are the tangible, pre-market makings of what-if ideas turning over in Burns' mind.
It's the same thinking... and creating... and re-creating that produced the Handeholder – emphasis on the 'E' when pronouncing it but think little italicized 'e' (as in e-mail) when understanding its function
What it is is a device that wraps around the hand and attaches to iPads, Kindles, and other tablet-size computers, so there's no need to grasp with one hand while trying to type with the other. Attached to the palms of their hands, the Handeholder lets users not only hold but turn their device in any direction. This allows doctors to input reports or look up charts, or coaches to use them as electronic clipboards, by stabilizing the otherwise sleek-but-slippery devices. Bedtime readers can cuddle under the blankets without fumbling to keep their e-books in place.
The possibilities go on and on, says Burns, who came up with the idea about seven months ago, when he saw first hand how difficult it was to balance and use an iPad. The Handeholder is just the latest in a long list of Burns' how-can-we-improve-life inventions. The owner of Burns Computer Services in Ann Arbor, his company is known for the technological innovations it's brought to the world of running, specifically in timing and providing race results.
Thousands of Handeholders are being sold each week and sent all around the country. It takes six employees, including Burns, and another three to four employees on days of assembly and shipping, to run the growing company.
With a visit to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month, a listing on Amazon, inclusion in SkyMall
magazine, and rapidly increasing volumes of calls and emails about the product, the expectation is for unit sales to jump to the tens of thousands, Burns says.
"We are just starting to get traction," says Burns, who like so many of us gets his a-ha moments in the shower and assorted other places. Anywhere but the office, it seems. "They come at the oddest times," he says. "I don't know if it's a slight case of insanity or a case of perseverance. I don't know if it's anything special. It's just the way I look at stuff."
When Burns comes up with an idea he will sketch it or write it down and take it ASAP to his company prop man, engineer, and go-to design guy. Burns calls him Mr. Scott from Star Trek, and prefers for his identity to remain anonymous. Even a soap dish from a hotel -- the perfect shape, Burns thought -- was transformed into one of Handeholder's computer stands. Besides the palm-of-your-hand device, there are display stands, attachments for counters and cabinets, and other products in the pipeline.
Burns, a collegiate and lifelong runner, extended his love of the sport when he started Burns Computer Services 30 years ago. The Handeholder has become an extension of that, an accidental success really. The idea was truly an invention brought about by necessity. About eight months ago, Burns Computer Systems decided to evolve race timing further by putting iPads in the hands of race volunteers.
"We had brand new iPads and we were figuring out how the volunteers could use them. Literally five minutes after I got it I almost dropped it. I did the juggling act. I immediately said there's no way I'm going to put iPads in the hands of volunteers and have them drop them."
"Thirty minutes later the first version of the Handehold was invented," he says.
More ingenuity would come.
"That Saturday we used that first one. It was a static hold point. After using it at that event we determined very quickly that your arm goes to sleep after 20 minutes or so because it was uncomfortable or unnatural. By Monday, Version 2 was created so it had a 360-degree rotation. Everybody will hold a Kindle or iPad differently than the next person. Our device allows you to hold it however you desire."
At that point, Burns had only envisioned the Handeholder as being another offering for race organizers. But it didn't take long to realize that it could have other applications. "The very first weekend we used this we had people come up and ask us 'How are you holding that? What are you doing?' That immediately to me said this is an issue people are going to have."
The response told him it was time to start a branch business.
"Initially, the whole thing happened over a period of three days. It was invented and built in that amount of time. The potential had Burns and his "talented" staff perfecting the design, looking for sources for materials, coming up with a business plan, and obtaining patents.
"We went from concept to production, everything in less than 12 weeks, which was pushing it," he says. "We are 100 percent made in the US and 85 percent made in the state of Michigan." The components are assembled right in the Ann Arbor office. Fairway Products from Hillsdale provides the strap and Ann Arbor Plastic, of Saline, makes the major plastic assembly plates.
As he talks, Burns falls into the how-to-improve-life way of thinking that's been his lifelong mission. "How many people casually mention: 'I have something I just invented 10 days ago, an eight-position stand...It's a little piece of flat plastic. We already have the patents in.' "
"Somebody told me once, when I actually showed them this, they said, 'Good ideas are a dime a dozen...It's a matter of taking it from the idea to actually doing it.' "
Burns and his people clearly know how to run with an idea, and they have the track record for doing so. Always innovating, they've been introducing high-tech improvements to running for decades. From pre-Internet age 900-numbers for instant race results to bar coded runner information and shoestring timing chips, Burns Computer Services thinks up inventions and turns them into business brawn.
The concept-to-market approach has grown out of Burns' lifelong habit of wondering why things were the way they were. Since childhood he's had the inventor temperament.
"My mom always accused me of looking at things from an opposite view. I was always commenting that it would be better if were done this way," says Burns, one of eight brothers who grew up in a central Michigan farming town.
One unexpected benefit of the product has touched Burns, now a cyclist, on a personal level. He rode his bike across the country last year as a way to bring awareness to the financial burdens on the parents of children with cancer. And now with the Handeholder he has found a way to help the disabled, some of whom have been given Handeholders after Burns was contacted about how much a device like this would mean for their independence. "I never expected this, and I'm honored that it could actually change a life," he says.
It's what happens when inspiration becomes innovation.
"I like to observe things where you sort of keep an open mind as to what you're looking at. Sometimes if you have a dozen or so different concepts in your head you look for solutions in everyday products," he says. "That's sort of what I'll do."
"And I'm able to do it because I have very good people here to work with."
Kim North Shine is a Detroit-area freelance writer and as of recently metromode's Development News editor. She also seems to invent things just a little too late. Her previous article was Building Green In Ann Arbor
Send your comments here.All photos by Doug CoombePhotos
Mike Burns with Hand-e-holder stands, tripods and clamps.
Mike demonstrates the Hand-e-holder.
Mike with an iPad charger station utilizing the Hand-e-holder Adaptor Plates.
Mike with Hand-e-holder messenger bags.
Mike demonstrates the Hand-e-holder leg strap.