It was a cloudless day with temperatures in the 90s as Nancy Braaten was kayaking with family along the Genesee River. She could feel sweat trickling down her back. The umbrella stuffed behind her shirt offered no real shade and only added to the discomfort.
“I was not enjoying myself,” said Braaten, an avid kayaker who likes to be outdoors getting exercise, not working hard.
That’s when inspiration struck and the Kybrella – a collapsible sun shade for a kayak – was born.
The Kybrella went into production this summer after four years of development..
“This thing was a little idea that just exploded,” said Braaten, a registered nurse by profession. “It’s just been one foot in front of the other. Maybe I’ll be able to retire with this or a couple of other inventions that I’ve got rattling around in my head.”
Braaten said she has learned a lot from the experience of getting her invention from an idea, to a prototype and now a product for which her company is taking orders. She began marketing the Kybrella – a name suggested by her niece that combines kayak and umbrella – earlier this summer.
When Braaten first came up with the Kybrella concept she looked to see if anything already existed in the market. To her surprise, it didn’t, though such things have appeared on baby strollers and chairs.
“But nothing out there for a kayak,” she said.
“I thought ‘If you snooze you lose’ so I jumped right on the idea,” said Braaten, who said she had an idea years ago for a toothpaste with baking soda and peroxide before such products had come to market.
“So this time I didn’t want to wait,” she said. “I put a 100 percent commitment into working on it.”
The right stuff
Getting the right material was among her first – and likely biggest – challenges.
She needed the cover to be permeable so that air currents could pass through, but also water resistant and that would protect people from dangerous UV ways.
“We needed something that wouldn’t be like a sail and propel the kayak, and would still create shade,” she said.
She found the material in the aerospace industry. With it, the Kyrbella is available in six colors.
Braaten also wanted a simple design that was easy to assemble, remove and transport. The final design involves just a single pin pulled to connect or disconnect the shade from the kayak.
The Kybrella can be attached and detached to any size kayak in about 30 seconds, Braaten said.
From prototype to product
Helping her get the Kybrella to market was Joe McKenzie, her business partner. McKenzie had helped a Honeoye Falls woman get her own invention to market so Braaten sought out his help.
“I liked the idea,” said McKenzie, an engineer. “I thought it was a very salable product. There was nothing out there like it.”
Marketing for sports equipment is a big business. The sporting goods industry reported nearly $50 billion in sales in 2016, and had increased for seven straight years.
Sales of kayaks were up 21 percent, to more than $42 million, and up 18 percent in unit sales for the 12 months ending February 2016, according to data from The NPD Group, a global information company.
McKenzie said he talked to people who owned kayaks about the product as it was being developed.
“And they said when it would start to rain, or the sun would beat down, they’d often have to stop,” he said. “This will allow them to stay out there longer.”
McKenzie worked with a patent attorney to put in a more concrete prospectus for the Kybrella. Then, as an engineer, he helped design the parts. Braaten would then critique the design through the product’s development.
“I have never met anyone before who was more diligent than Joe. I wouldn’t leave him alone,” Braaten said.
Once they had a product, Braaten said they had to learn how to package it. They made the bag the product is sold in so that the bag could also be used to transport the Kybrella and also be used on the kayak.
“This was a whole different ball game,” Braaten said. “Did you ever think, opening up something like a new vacuum cleaner, all the little things that went into getting it ready for selling.”
For Braaten’s product that included everything from creating a logo to setting up her company, Kybrella LLC. Along that way she created a brochure to market the product, instructions on its assembly and use to ensure the safety of kayak occupants and a disclaimer.
She also needed to obtain liability protection and find someone to manufacture the parts, manufacture the cover itself and the bag in which it was sold.
“I was nervous about this the whole time,” Braaten said, “but Joe kept telling me that it was a phenomenal idea and to go for it.”
The first orders were taken in June, and have included a customer in Arizona who owns 28 kayaks and ordered Kybrellas for each one.
Driven by determination
Braaten grew up in Geneseo and raised three children – a daughter, now 38, and two sons, ages 36 and 34, respectively.
“While the kids were still in school I was a single mom working to get my education and take care of the home. I look back at it and wonder how I did it,” she said.
She had once planned to become a veterinarian, but instead became a nurse in 2001 after earning her degree from Roberts Wesleyan College and went into the service as a military nurse. Among her postings was working a Ground Zero following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York City.
“I don’t feel people can lose if they never give up,” She said. “That’s what I do. That’s what keeps driving me on.”