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Interview: Enhancing Workplace Ergonomics

Dec. 4, 2015
We talk with Sean Petterson, CEO of StrongArm Technologies, to see why he’s so passionate about ergonomics.
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Sean Petterson, CEO, StrongArm Technologies

Ergonomics and proper lifting techniques are important to worker safety. In 2014, the Workplace Safety Index compiled by Liberty Mutual reported that injuries cost business around one billion dollars a week.

For Sean Petterson, though, it was not the size of the market but rather a passion to improve the worker’s lifestyle that spurred him to start StrongArm Technologies. Sean wants people to be safe on the job as well as have energy after a shift to enjoy their time off. Machine Design spoke with Sean about why he started his company, and he also revealed some tips on how to be an entrepreneur.

What is your background?

I’m 25 years old, and was born and raised in Long Island. I graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in 2013 with a degree in Industrial Design. While at RIT, I started my company, StrongArm Technologies, with co-founder Justin Hillery. We won a number of business-plan competitions, such as the Mass Challenge, to angel fund the company.

I grew up with an eclectic family on Long Island, who helped me become who I am today. My grandfather was a railroad engineer, my mom was a special agent, and my dad was a contractor. My dad passed away on the job, which made me realize the importance of providing protection for the physical workers. My family is my inspiration for my work and my desire to pursue making a difference in the world.

Currently, I am the CEO of StrongArm Technologies. We create products that serve the blue-collar worker, who we prefer to call the industrial athlete. We provide innovations that increase physical performance and safety when working a physically demanding job.

What are some aspects you feel it takes to be an entrepreneur?

Outside of knowledge of various fields and a passion for the one you operate in, entrepreneurship takes an iron stomach. You need to have a level head and a small ego to be an entrepreneur. It’s important to keep grounded and be able to detach yourself from all of the stress and turbulence, both good and bad, in your life.

A big problem with starting ventures is people often fall in love with the solution but not the problem. You do not want to focus on the first thing you develop and expect it to be the end-all solution. You should keep an open mind throughout the process so that you can create the best solution possible. You want to refine a process more than a product. The process should focus on leveraging the input from the end user as much as possible. Compassionate listening and an iterative design process are means of mining for great product developments.  

What were some of your biggest hurdles in getting a product to market?

Some of the biggest hurdles that I’ve faced while getting a product to market are learning to maximize the potential of members of your team, managing budgets, and setting expectations. You want to aim to solve 100% of a problem, but you need to take small steps toward that goal. I’ve found that by incrementally solving 10% of the issues at a time, your solution will allow you to set milestones in the design process, and you’re able to forecast deadlines more easily.

What inspired you to get into this industry?

My father passed away on the job when I was a teenager, which was one of my main inspirations for my company. I realized that these workers, who perform strenuous work every day, are ill-equipped. They’re risking their health every day on the job to provide for their families. I wanted to create a solution to this problem and make sure that all workers come home safe to their families.

Sean Petterson works on refinements for the V22 ErgoSkeleton.

 What are you trying to accomplish with this company?

The goal is to bring awareness to the active workers, who we call industrial athletes. I feel they’re overworked and underpaid. We need to give them the attention they deserve. These workers risk their bodies just as much as professional athletes.

Our goal is to grow our brand so that StrongArm can bring these industrial athletes home a little bit safer and a little bit less tired. These people are the backbone of our economy, so we’ve got their backs covered, literally.

If you could talk to someone thinking of starting a company, what advice would you give them?

Do it. The first step is just to try, and to always be adaptable. My next piece of advice would be to not fall in love with the solution rather than the problem. People often pigeonhole themselves to the first product they make and stick with it. They need to have a focus on a long-term strategy. I’ve found that in an unfamiliar market, you sometimes need to release a product that’s more digestible to the end user, one they will understand and embrace. Truly new ideas need to be introduced to the public in a way that they understand. After the problem and solution are understood, you can use this as a platform to display the real impact of your innovation.

Would this advice change if it were, for example, a younger student versus an older person with a job?

No, anyone is able to be an entrepreneur at any point of their life. I’m often fearful that it would have been nice to have real corporate experience before starting my company, because I’ve never worked a job that I haven’t created for myself. But, at the same time, I remind myself that even though I don’t have corporate experience, I’ve been building up my entrepreneur experience. There’s really no wrong time to start a business.

 Can you tell me about your future plans for the company?

In September, we announced that we’re collaborating with 3M, which will help us move forward while we continue to focus on creative innovative solutions for safety and productivity. We’re currently commercializing our ErgoSkeletons—the V22 and FLx . In the next few months, we plan on starting a campaign for our patient-handling device, the ErgoHug. In the first quarter of next year, we’re launching our first connected device, which is very exciting.

Moving forward, we will continue to fill the pipeline of innovation necessary to help as many industrial athletes as possible.

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