Inside Track: Construction world listens to innovator’s sound idea
Layoff freed Bruce Burgess to solve a noisy problem.
Following more than a decade in construction and as the vice president of a construction firm, Bruce Burgess walked into work one day in 2011 and saw his computer missing and his boss there to hand him a box.
“We’ve been downsized,” Burgess remembers being told on what he described as the most difficult day of this life.
But he’s come to acknowledge the day opened up an opportunity he never would have had otherwise — a reason he doesn’t like to throw the company under the bus.
Despite his retrospective optimism, when he woke up the day after, he was angry.
“But with that anger came a lot of energy,” Burgess said. “I remember thinking I had to do something with that energy. I couldn’t just sit there and self-destruct. I don’t enjoy being angry.”
In his construction career, Burgess worked on a variety of glass-facade buildings, ranging from Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital to River House Condominiums. They all had the same problem: terrible acoustics.
Burgess first fully realized the problem needed to be solved as he worked in a room adjacent to an exam room where a doctor was explaining personal details to a patient. Burgess could hear every word clearly.
Exterior glass is kept in place by aluminum framing, or mullions. But the space where the framing meets interior walls transmits sound and creates the acoustic issues, Burgess said.
“Everyone has always just wanted to blame someone instead of fixing it,” he said. “The easy path was to built it, don’t talk about it and move on.
“I kept saying to myself, ‘Someday, someone should fix that.’”
Little did he know that someone would end up being him.
With time on his hands, Burgess decided it was time to act and solve a major construction problem, an aspiration when he graduated in 1986 from Michigan Technological University with a degree in civil engineering.
He had worked in construction since high school and sought a job that kept him from behind a desk. His engineering degree was in hopes to continue working on challenging problems.
He tapped into his savings account, rented a sound chamber and built a model for testing.
“Luckily, I was successful in the baseline testing. As soon as I understood, I knew how to fix the problem,” Burgess said. “I had an idea I knew would be popular and test data that proved I could fix it. But I had no idea how to take it to market.”
He read about Start Garden’s 5x5 Night and signed up, expecting to have nine months to a year before his chance to share the idea with potential investors. Two weeks later, Burgess found out he’d be presenting that Tuesday.
All he had was the data he’d collected and a concept for how to fix the issue of sound transmission in glass buildings.
The weekend before the presentation, Burgess and a friend went dumpster diving at a glass installer for discarded scraps. Once he had the pieces, and fueled by pressure to finish by Tuesday, a model of his product was built. The company name — Mull-It-Over Products — and other must-have details were figured out.
Mull-It-Over is a play on words for the aluminum mullion cap he came up with.
“I think it’s a rule that a first prototype has to be made in the garage,” Burgess said. “A lot of all those things were just late at night ‘we-need-something-fast’ sort of thinking.”
He presented at 5x5 in April 2011 and won. The next day, he took his winnings to a patent attorney and said, “I did something really stupid last night and told the world about my idea, and we need a patent.”
Burgess said while he risked telling the world his idea, the night ended up being worth it as he suddenly had myriad investors and people to help him take the product to market.
Within two weeks he had a branded company with professional marketing materials and a widespread sales network. He kept the manufacturing local — keeping in mind his time as a victim of downsizing — through Grand Haven Gaskets, which was looking to diversify.
“West Michigan, it’s a pretty darn good place,” he said. “All of this stuff just came together, and it’s really amazing how it came together because of all the people in the community.”
Once Burgess had simplified the product, he knew it should be an easy sell to architects and contractors. But professionals who would end up eventually using the products were reluctant to listen, as the acoustics had for so long been a problem with no solution, Burgess said.
He first saw the product really resonate at a meeting in Washington, D.C., where he was presented to three architects. Within 10 minutes the room was full of other interested people, Burgess said. The same thing happened in Chicago.
“For so long, all these companies were working in silos,” he said. “We fixed a transition point between the interior and exterior. You needed to understand both sides to solve the problem.”
Burgess said the product is set to be used in a number of new developments, such as SoHo Tower in New York City and Keauhou Place in Honolulu.
Burgess said the benefits of being the first to market with the product are considerable, and the patent office granted him pretty much everything he asked for.
“It’s gotten a life of its own. If I tried to stop it right now, I couldn’t,” he said.
Mull-It-Over products are now all over the country, and he’ll fly to Germany this fall to start selling the product in Europe. Following discussions with Marriott, Burgess has also begun working with a company on the East Coast to also create a fire-rated product for glass buildings. He has a one-hour fire rated product, with a two-hour product in the testing lab.
Last week, he was interviewed by Kathy Ireland for Worldwide Business with Kathy Ireland, a Fox Business Network and Bloomberg International program.
“People say the American dream is dead,” Burgess said. “You have to take risks, but I’d say it’s alive and well.”