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Indianapolis entrepreneur finds way to combine exercise and work

January 28, 2008

Jerry Carr studied turf at Purdue University-how to grow some of Mother Nature's best and how to design the artificial kind. After graduation, his jobs mostly kept him outside and active.

But when he moved into a desk-bound sales job in 2006, he noticed more than the inevitable weight gain.

"I couldn't wait to exercise at the end of each day," said Carr, 47.

Feeling restless and unfocused, he brought a treadmill into his office. But he found that switching off between time at his desk and on the treadmill wasn't enough for him. He wanted to exercise while he worked.

That desire formed the roots of a business Carr now is working to cultivate: Fishers-based TreadDesk Inc. Carr removed the handrails from his treadmill and tweaked his desk so he could walk and work simulanteously. His office quickly became a popular stop for his co-workers. "Everybody who got on it wanted one," he said.

Less than a year after quitting his day job to dedicate himself to the enterprise, Carr already has 40 prospective buyers lined up.

One innovation expert was intrigued by the idea.

"At its core, it's addressing an unmet consumer need," said Jerry McColgin, founder of Carmel-based Insight2 Inc., a product creation and design firm. "We're trying to exercise more, but we're tied to a desk and computer."

In the three months Carr walked while he worked, he logged about four miles a day and lost 18 pounds. He thinks others could do the same.

"Weight loss is seen as a big ordeal, but it doesn't have to be a major change," he said.

Carr drew up a business plan-while walking at his desk, of course-and founded TreadDesk last spring.

Sales focus

Carr's desk-treadmill combo costs $3,000 to $4,000, depending on the model. For the deluxe version, he installs a small platform floor with a built-in treadmill so users don't have to step up to start walking. The desk features hydraulic lifts that raise or lower it at the flip of a switch, offering a more traditional-albeit sedentary-option.

The adjustable desk can be sold separately and Carr also sells a "walkingonly" version where the desk is always raised.

TreadDesks are capped at a top speed of four miles per hour for safety's sake, but Carr recommends a 2-mph or slower pace if users want to type or read while walking. At that speed, a worker won't break a sweat and can easily talk on the phone.

Carr said he's invested $75,000 into the venture, drawing on his savings and a personal loan. He gets the treadmills from a Chinese manufacturer and hired Indianapolis-based General Fabricators Inc. to make the desks. Carr assembles and installs the units himself.

He finalized the prototype TreadDesk last year and is working with a patent attorney to safeguard the design.

Now he's concentrating on sales. Carr wants to focus mostly on the Indianapolis market at first, and he estimates he can sell enough TreadDesks to bring in $1.3 million in 2008. Eventually, he'd like to set up deals with out-of-town distributors.

Many of Carr's early customers are professionals who either own businesses or work from home. But he also has spoken with larger firms about setting up communal TreadDesk stations where employees can get re-energized as they check e-mail.

Carr envisions a day when coffee shops and airport terminals offer the walkwhile-you-work stations for patrons, and gyms could have a couple for less strenuous warm-up and cool-down walking. He also thinks the TreadDesk will appeal to tech-addicted college students and is talking to sororities about giving them a try.

To help the company grow, he's considering licensing the idea or bringing on additional investors.

"The interest in this is much bigger than just Indianapolis," he said.

Trial period

Carr's concept has promise, observers said.

"This is a pretty viable idea," said Larry O'Cull, president of Indianapolisbased product-development firm Priio.

But Carr would be well-advised to make certain he has all his patents in order, O'Cull said, because if the idea takes off, Chinese manufacturers will be close on his heels, building and shipping the entire system directly to clients.

Insight2's McColgin also cautioned against expecting too much too soon. It's a new enough idea-with a high-enough price tag-that people probably won't buy TreadDesks until they have tried them.

In fact, Carr plans to build several tester units this year and leave them at local businesses for a month-long trial run.

One local fitness expert said people still will need to get their cardiovascular exercise in separately because the slow walking pace isn't strenuous enough to count as aerobic activity, which strengthens the heart.

But she still cheers Carr's invention.

"Moving, even slowly, is going to contribute to your calorie expenditure," said Melanie Roberts, director of the fitness center at the National Institute for Fitness and Sport. "I hope he sells a million of them, 3 million."

But she's doubtful it's something that would take off in a fitness-center setting even for the warm-up and cool-down periods.

"People want to come in and be focused on their exercise goals and leave the work stuff behind," she said.

If Carr can get research together to prove the weight-loss benefits of Tread-Desk, he may sway more companies to give it a shot, according to Sally Stephens, founder of Indianapolis-based Spectrum Health Systems LLC, a consulting firm that helps businesses lower health care costs.

"Anything to get employees to exercise periodically throughout the day is a huge asset," she said. But companies need to understand "its real advantage over just buying a couple of treadmills."

TreadDesk isn't Carr's first time around the entrepreneurial block. Through the years, he has worked at several small firms, getting a glimpse into the flexibility needed to be successful.

And in 2004, he started Lines and Logos Inc., a turf-painting business he still owns. In that business, he contracts with local schools and small colleges to paint the lines on their football and soccer fields. Carr coordinates the jobs and hires part-time workers to do the painting.

With that experience under his nowsmaller belt, Carr thinks he'd headed down the right trail with TreadDesk.

"It's fun to run your own business, but there are a lot of hurdles and challenges pretty much every day," he said. "But at least it's not all new to me."
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