With skills they’ve honed in the military, troops and veterans hope to become entrepreneurs

Since 2022, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has been hosting entrepreneurship fairs at military bases to encourage troops to start businesses.

By Andrew Dyer, American Homefront ProjectJune 20, 2024 9:45 am, ,

From the American Homefront Project:

Former Navy officers Matt Semple and Andy Camp were tired of inadvertently waking one another while they shared a stateroom at sea.

The pair was deployed on the guided-missile destroyer USS Jason Dunham. They kept different watch schedules and said getting ready was almost impossible to do quietly.

“I remember I’d be asleep, and I’d wake up to Andy literally banging on the sink to try to get his razor clean,” Semple said.

Camp had the same complaint.

“Often I would wake up to the sound of him tapping his razor against the sink, which is not a very pleasant way to wake up,” Camp said.

So Camp started thinking and drawing.

He studied systems engineering at the Naval Academy and said his long watches during deployment gave him plenty of time to draw and design. He was looking for a way to clean disposable razor cartridges using little water and without the need for loud banging.

“Everything about shaving’s worse on a ship,” Camp said. “The bathroom’s tiny or the water pressure is worse or the lighting’s worse.”

Most sailors are required to shave at least once a day, so growing a beard was out of the question.

Before the end of the deployment, Camp said he had a design on paper for a possible solution: the “Razor Rinser,” a small, plastic, hand-powered device that pumps water between the blades of disposable razors, flushing out whiskers and other residue.

Even when they were still at sea in the Mediterranean, he and Semple began to think about commercializing the idea.

In doing so, they joined a growing number of military personnel who are interested in entrepreneurship. Since 2022, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has been hosting entrepreneurship fairs at military bases around the country to encourage troops who are considering starting their own businesses.

Andy Camp demonstrates the Razor Rinser in the IDEA Lab at the San Diego Central Library. The $30 invention is designed to clean disposable razors with less water and less need to bang them in the sink. Mike Damron / KPBS

“They have unique skills that you get from moving from base to base, moving from job to job,” said Kathi Vidal, the Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. “You’ve got to be facile, you’ve got to learn subject matter quickly. You’ve got to be innovative.”   

Vidal said the entrepreneurship fairs bring local resources together to help get service members, military spouses, and veteran inventors on the right path.

“We can talk about the entire journey,” she said. “How do you know when you’re right to be an entrepreneur? When you’re willing to take that risk, how do you get the funding? What are different ways of doing that? What is the support structure around you?”

Camp attended one of the patent office road shows at Naval Base San Diego and was ready to take the next step – developing a prototype. The pair needed a maker space in the San Diego area, and Camp says they found one where they didn’t expect.

“I was shocked to see that the predominant one is at the Central Library,” he said. “And also, it’s free.”

Makerspaces are collaborative work spaces that provide tools and equipment. The San Diego Public Library also can help budding inventors plan their projects.

“When somebody comes in with an idea, we have them sit down (and) sketch it out on paper,” said librarian Catherine Hoang. “We take them around and kind of … get the ball rolling.”

Semple and Camp used the library’s 3D printers and laser cutter. The library also helped them learn about obtaining a patent.

“There’s a lot of material out there that you have to sort through,” said Sarah Hendy-Jackson, who runs San Diego Public Library’s patent and trademark resource center. “But that’s where I come in. My favorite part about this whole thing — it’s entirely free.”

Their Kickstarter campaign launched April 30 with the goal of raising $10,000. When it closed May 30, more than 1,300 backers had contributed almost $70,000. Some are service members dealing with low water pressure aboard ships, while others just want to save water at home or lessen the mess of shaving.

The two both left the Navy in May and moved to the East Coast. But they’re looking for a manufacturer and a way to bring their invention to market. They plan to sell the Razor Rinser for $30.

Hendy-Jackson hopes Semple and Camp’s story helps inspire other inventors.

“To be able to say Matt and Andy did it, this is how they did it, these are the steps they did, and you can to it too — and you can do it here for free — that really just incredible,” she said.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.