Soletics' CCO Vanessa Gore has a knack for adapting to the new territories her company has explored in the short time since its founding. Serving everyone from athletes to those who suffer from chronic pain, Gore connects their needs to Soletics' problem solving technology.
If there’s one thing West Michiganders are good at, it’s talking about the weather. And if there’s one thing Vanessa Gore and her team at Soletics are known for, it’s doing something about it.
Soletics, a portmanteau of the words “solar” and “athletics,” was conceived in October 2012 with its first product being a solar-powered shirt for spring and fall athletes like runners, soccer players, and football players to reduce injury attributed to improper warm-ups. The team, consisting of Chief Communications Officer Gore, Chief Executive Officer Michael Kurley, and Chief Marketing Officer Lindsay Noonan, ran into a few issues with the shirt at first, the most substantial being that no one was interested. But evolve and endure Soletics did, as it would again and again before finding a focus that truly resonated with people, combining utilitarian style with solutions to physical limitations.
“We always strive to find true pain points in consumers' lives and build products to solve them,” Gore says.
The team began experimenting with a solar-powered jacket, shifting their target market from spring athletes to winter sports participants like ice fisherman, snowmobilers, and snowboarders.
Over the course of its first year, Team Soletics participated in six business competitions, including the Michigan Clean Energy Venture Challenge, the Green Light Business Model Competition, the Great Lakes Entrepreneur's Quest, and the International Business Model Competition. IBMC, held at Harvard University, found Team Soletics chosen out of over 1,300 applicants from 10 different countries for one of nine wildcard spots.
From that first year, feedback from over 870 winter athletes and 100 industry professionals was noted and incorporated into the Soletics focus. The jacket project was scrapped in favor of a battery-powered style of gloves, which won Soletics the $25,000 first prize in the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition (AMIC), a competition focused on fostering economic growth in Michigan.
Moving to the present, now with over $110,000 raised, 11 competitions won, and a newly refined prototype and business model, Soletics is finding its target audience growing, with more than just between-season athletes looking to the trio for help.
In late summer of this year, Soletics will be launching heated gloves for patients with Raynaud's disease and other connective tissue disorders, Gore says. “They are ultra-thin—think runner's gloves—with sensors in the fingers that send real-time biofeedback to a powerband that connects separately to the glove. This feedback allows the glove to heat on a finger-by-finger basis, accounting for any temperature variations and saving energy.”
The gloves are also able to sense environmental temperature changes before the wearer and automatically begin heating, so the hands never go through temperature shock. The aim is to keep hands comfortable at any activity level, without the need to manually adjust any settings or layers, Gore says.
Easing conditions like Raynaud’s, Scleroderma, Lupus, and others that affect daily life is always on the radar for the Soletics trio, who have come extremely far in the few short years since their serendipitous meeting at Grand Valley State University. As Kurley puts it, the team naturally fell into the positions they currently hold, with each excelling in different areas.
“I run the overall strategy and focus on financing and product development; Lindsay took over marketing, web design, and SEO; and Vanessa focused on building client and partner relationships and communicating with the public and inquiries,” Kurley says. “[Gore] is focused on partner relationships and telling our story publicly. She reaches out to all of our distribution and marketing channel partners as well as acts as the ‘face’ of Soletics. We hold weekly meetings and she helps to organize and document those as well.”
Gore admits she starts most days checking her email from bed, occasionally greeting sleepy puppies, while watching reruns of “Frasier” but that’s what she enjoys about the startup culture—that no day is ever the same.
“As terrible a habit as it is, I'm able to see what needs my immediate attention as the day begins,” she says. “Most of the time our team works from home, but we are often jumping back and forth to meetings across the city and state. For a bit of structure, the team and I have weekly Monday meetings to talk about what was accomplished the week before and to set goals for the upcoming week.”
As chief communications officer, Gore’s responsibility at Soletics encompasses “anything and everything from talking with partners, to blogging, to editing business plans and pitch decks for presentations” and more, Gore says.
“My favorite part of my job, however, is the people I have had the pleasure of meeting along our two-year journey,” she says. “Soletics has participated in now 12 business competitions in three states and I've always said that the people we've met and the connections we've made far outweigh any prize money. To have friends all across the country and into Canada that are working towards the same dream? That's the real source of camaraderie and encouragement.”
Besides new startup friends, hearing from customers is what motivates Gore to push Soletics to new horizons. Soletics was based upon customer discovery and the learning of their day-to-day struggles, she says.
“It gives me such joy when a customer will email me personally to ask questions or to simply thank the team for the work we are doing,” Gore says.
Gore double majored in business management and marketing at GVSU. She had a year and a half of school left when Soletics was started and actually missed graduation for a competition in Colorado Springs.
“It was well worth it seeing as we took second place and made some incredible friends during our time in the mountains,” she says.
Gore’s experience at Bonefish Grill, from bussing tables to floor management and corporate-level training, helped her refine her natural people and leadership skills, although that’s not all she draws on at Soletics.
“While my resume certainly helped me in launching Soletics, it did not fully prepare me for what was to come,” she says. “Much of what I know now was a happy accident—jumping in the water and then learning how to swim.”
Gore’s personal path follows what the Soletics team as a whole has embraced. The future for Gore, Kurley, and Noonan will undoubtedly involve adaptation and innovation in every sense.
Soletics soon plans to design different iterations of the textile-based gloves and detachable powerbands so that consumers will be able to purchase these separately to mix and match according to their needs, Gore says. As the company expands into other markets, it looks to license the core, proprietary platform technology to larger brands. A partnership such as this will be useful for markets that are known to have particularly brand loyal consumers, such as winter sports or the more niche outdoor work glove market.
For more information on Gore and Soletics, visit http://www.teamsoletics.com/
Matthew Russell is the Project Editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at email@example.com.
Photography by Steph Harding