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NIU alums seek success with Position Tech

July 7, 2011

An idea conceived in an NIU classroom has become more than just another school project.

When former Huskie defensive end Erek Benz was presented with the challenge of developing a start-up business for an entrepreneurship class, he teamed with former NIU quarterback Dan Nicholson, and business majors Christian Anderson and David Pickard. Together they created a product that had not been revolutionized in over 60 years – a customizable replacement football cleat.

Now, nearly 40 months later, the four NIU graduates have transformed an old woodshop in the River North area of Chicago into the headquarters of Position Tech, a company focused on developing position-specific products for athletes.

The group utilized resources provided by various NIU colleges and departments to research, test and develop the concept.

Benz credits business professor Lynn Neeley and NIU alumnus Eric Wasowicz for offering guidance early in their venture. NIU’s College of Business also provided networking opportunities that ultimately paired them with the Illinois Small Business Center.

With the help of Promod Vohra, dean of NIU’s College of Engineering and Engineering Technology, they were introduced to Cliff Mirman, chair of the Department of Technology, who helped test the cleat by using a pendulum-like device that mimicked the movement of an athlete by dragging the cleat through artificial turf.

Having access to NIU athletes and athletic facilities was also a key to product development.

“The engineering department was huge,” Anderson said. “But the biggest way NIU helped us was through the football program. We had access to players for interviews, we studied positions and movements, and we watched lots of film.”

After conducting interviews and surveys with athletes, they began feeling more confident in the direction of Position Tech. “When we started getting positive feedback from athletes, that’s when we knew we were on to something,” Anderson said.

In the summer of 2010, Position Tech began reaching out to sporting goods stores for an opportunity to sell their new product.

“The day I said to myself we’re really going to do this was when we received an order from Dunham Sports,” Benz said, adding that Position Tech is now available at retailers like Eastbay, Champs Sports and Dick’s Sporting Goods. As the product catches on, the group is looking to expand its line with several new products in the near future.

The company recently garnered attention when they took first place and $5,000 prize beating 49 other competitors at the Stateline FastPitch Competition, an entrepreneurial-focused event held at NIU Rockford June 22.

Anderson said their main goal is to continue reaching out to retailers while staying focused on creating brand awareness. Their most recent endeavor, Position Clinic, features former Chicago Bear Hunter Hillenmeyer and other professional football players working with high school athletes on various facets of the game. The camp is scheduled for July 9 at Northwestern University in Evanston.

While positive strides have been made in the development of Position Tech, Benz knows they still have a way to go before they trade the woodshop in Chicago for a high rise.

“We still have that entrepreneurial spirit,” Benz said. “We’re still eating macaroni and cheese and Ramen noodles.”