Making Adversity the Mother of Invention

By Hood, John | Policy Review, March-April 1997 | Go to article overview

Making Adversity the Mother of Invention

Hood, John, Policy Review

In 1994, Ryan Jarvis had a tragic accident on the basketball court at his high school. While scrambling for the ball during a pick-up game, Ryan, 16, got elbowed in the face. The blow severed his optic nerve and blinded him in his right eye.

Despite this injury, Ryan just wanted to go back to playing basketball and football. His father, Ed Jarvis, had his own decision to make: How should he respond to his son's accident? The contemporary American culture of victimhood offered him a range of options. He could have sued the high school, the basketball manufacturer, or the National Basketball Association for encouraging Ryan to play a dangerous sport despite the risks. He could have organized a grass-roots lobbying campaign to impose tougher safety standards on high-school sports and facilities. He could have gone on the talk-show circuit to decry athletic bellicosity, soliciting donations to start a charitable foundation to aid the victims of sports injuries.

Jarvis did none of these things. In typically American fashion, he saw a business opportunity--and took it.

Jarvis discovered that a major reason athletes still suffer so many eye injuries-more than 40,000 in 1995, according to a nonprofit group called Prevent Blindness America--is that the available protective gear is hard to wear and hard to use. Standard visors, he found, scratched easily, tended to. fog up on the court, and distorted the view that players had of their opponents and the ball. Kids, in particular, didn't want to wear them, because they were uncomfortable and interfered with performance. So Jarvis set out to design a better face guard.

"It wasn't my intention to enter the optical or sporting-goods business," said Jarvis in an article in Business Week. "I just wanted to provide my son with the right equipment. But I've learned that to have a product, you need a sense of purpose." The protective visors then on the market were nothing more than pieces of plastic made to fit helmets or heads, so Jarvis, a former food-distribution executive from Lynn, Massachusetts, consulted experts in optics and ophthalmology. They told him that the products had no optical design in them at all. He then created a new company, One Xcel, to market a new product.

The One Xcel visor that Jarvis designed is both coated to prevent fogging and scratches and curved to reduce distortion. It provides a broader side-to-side vision sweep than competitors' products. It is now the face shield of choice in the National Football League and is popular in the National Hockey League. "It's a superior product," says Jack Jeffers, the team ophthalmologist for the Philadelphia Eagles football team. Former New York Ranger Dave Maloney, who coaches youth ice hockey in Connecticut, predicts success for the improved headgear because in competitive sports "the slightest edge can make a great difference." Now Jarvis is working on special protective goggles for basketball players using the same optical and practical considerations.

Pointing the Finger

We're not used to seeing stories about personal tragedies, especially those involving children and recreation, end with a story of entrepreneurial success. The more familiar outcome is a lawsuit or a publicity campaign. In 1988, for example, one father virtually single-handedly got the federal government to regulate lawn darts after his seven-year-old daughter was accidentally killed by one. His crusade drew the spotlight of the national news and the talk shows, and directed tremendous public concern toward the Reagan administration's perceived "excesses" in regulatory reform.

More recently, two Nevada parents mourning the death of their 13-year-old son brought attention to what the Consumer Product Safety Commission called the "serious problem" of in-line skating injuries. And the mother of a five-year-old girl who died after the string of her coat got caught on a slide at a school playground helped publicize the cause of replacing drawstrings in children's clothing with buttons, zippers, Velcro, and snaps. …

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