After a debilitating motorcycle accident, most people’s wheels would stop turning, but for former Marine John Miller, they were just getting started.
Seeing opportunity in the face of adversity, he began his entrepreneurial venture, Illumatek, to prevent accidents like his. Ten years ago, the avid biker was run over not once, but twice. After the first impact, he was on the ground behind the SUV, pinned under the weight of his bike and in pain. That’s when he heard the vehicle switch into reverse. Unable to hear his shouts, the driver continued in reverse and ran over him again.
How could this happen? Miller’s Harley-Davidson was well lit in the front and back, but those lights weren’t visible from side angles. The driver of the SUV simply didn’t see him.
Miller was lucky to be alive, and set out to solve the problem that caused the accident. If his bike lighting were easily visible from any view, it would be much safer to ride at night. While watching a friend create a custom-etched windshield for his bike, he wondered what it would take to illuminate the fixture through fiber optics. After a long process of trial and error, and five years waiting for a patent, Miller had perfected his “glowshield” and found a renewed sense of purpose.
Years earlier, following his military service, the veteran moved between a wide variety of jobs. He was injured while working as a respiratory therapist and told he would not work again. Faced with the reality of living on monthly disability checks, he felt lost. The development of his glowshield sparked an entrepreneurial passion that helped him get through the surgeries following his accident and offered new hope for his future.
Many investors were keen to team up with Miller in the early stages of Illumatek, but he was wary of their motives. Miller says he felt “totally lost” in most entrepreneurial circles and was concerned about being exploited or losing control over the company. His hesitation was not unfounded. These early would-be investors looked toward outsourcing manufacturing to China in an effort to cut costs. For Miller, however, hiring other disabled veterans (especially those coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq) and establishing his manufacturing facility in Wisconsin were non-negotiable topics.
It was at this point that Miller came to VETransfer, a Milwaukee, WI business accelerator that offers support to veteran entrepreneurs. For the first time, Miller found a solid base of people he could trust to coach him through each step of building his business. The organization offers entrepreneurship training, office resources, networking, and capital-raising assistance at no cost to veterans. As one veteran entrepreneur puts it, “the overwhelming aspects are taken out, so you can focus on getting your business off the ground.” Miller says that working with the team “was like doing 3 years of networking in a week.”
The creative energy and sense of community in the organization are equally important. Veteran entrepreneurs share common ground and are eager to help one another, just ask former Sailor of the Year, Ronnie Reum. He joined the organization to accelerate his cleaning company, but after sitting next to Miller’s Illumatek display every day (which includes a brilliantly illuminated Harley-Davidson), he began devising business strategies to help out his fellow comrade.
The two formed a strong connection; Reum was also recovering from a serious auto accident. He had spent fourteen months in a hospital bed, and learned to walk all over again. When he finally recovered in 2011, grim economic conditions awaited him. His career in real estate had dissolved and he lost everything. He felt that he and Miller were in similar positions, physically, mentally and professionally. Reum joined Miller in his venture, using his sales and networking expertise to take Illumatek to the next level. This type of collaboration isn’t rare. Military training instills a strong sense of teamwork in veterans, and it’s only natural for them to join together to build something.
Today, Illumatek is expanding rapidly. They’ve leaked their glowshields and wind deflectors into the market at various Harley-Davidson dealerships, and have experienced great initial success. “When dealers see the product, the average time it takes to sell is three minutes,” says Miller. The two are excited to take their business beyond just motorcycles. Already, they’ve been approached about creating windshields for vehicles from snowmobiles to ATVs. A Florida woman even prepaid so she can have the very first Illumatek windshield for her golf cart.
For these two resilient veterans, the future looks as bright as Miller’s bike. Within the year they’ll be moving into their own manufacturing facility and creating jobs for veterans returning home from overseas. It’s been a remarkable journey for these two heroes. Excited but humble, the two find constant motivation in helping other veterans, and most importantly keeping people safe. As Miller puts it, “If it saves one biker’s life, I’ve done my job.”
Jodi Elias is the Communications Manager at Veteran Entrepreneurial Transfer, Inc., a Milwaukee, WI based business accelerator for veterans. Funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs as a pilot program, VETransfer offers training, resources, and mentoring to veterans in entrepreneurial endeavors.