The Seeds of Invention

Our tiny state has been a hotbed of innovation

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

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When it comes to innovation, it’s hard to find data on how Vermont compares per capita over the years. But the spirit of invention has abounded here from the state’s earliest days.

Examples include Julio Buel of Castleton, who invented the spoon-shaped fishing lure — the first commercially produced artificial lure. He had the idea after dropping a tablespoon into the water and seeing a fish strike it.

In 1796, James Wilson created America’s first artificial globe in his Bradford blacksmith shop. By 1813, he had turned that shop into the first globe factory in the States, producing and selling terrestrial and celestial globes for $50 a pair.

In 1807, Emma Hart came from Massachusetts to Middlebury, where she studied at Middlebury College and married physician John Willard. Recognizing the disparity between male and female education, in 1848 Emma Willard opened the Middlebury Female Seminary in her home, the country’s first school of higher education for women. The Emma Willard House is a National Historic Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places. Willard later opened Troy Female Seminary in New York (now called the Emma Willard School) and wrote many scientific and educational books.

Wagon-maker Thaddeus Fairbanks built an iron foundry in 1824, and he and his brother Erastus established a partnership to make two of his inventions: a cast iron plow and a stove. Thaddeus’s most famous invention was the platform scale for weighing heavy objects, the design for which he patented in 1830. In 1834, he and his brothers, Erastus and Joseph, founded E. and T. Fairbanks and Co. in St. Johnsbury. They also founded the St. Johnsbury Academy in 1842, and Erastus would eventually serve as Vermont’s governor.

Gardener Spring Blodgett invented an iron cooking oven for a local tavern owner in 1848, launching a company that today is the world’s leading manufacturer of commercial ovens. Just last year, Blodgett Ovens left its outgrown Burlington factory for new digs on Allen Martin Drive in Essex.

Alfred W. Gray of Middletown Springs held 12 patents, including two for his horse-powered treadmills, one for a corn sheller, and one for a machine to make wrought iron nails. His manufacturing plant, A.W. Gray & Sons, opened in 1844, reinvigorated the town, which had been wiped out in an 1811 flood. By 1867, he employed 30 people and supported a slew of loggers, sawyers, and teamsters.

This is hardly a complete list. An easy Google search can round up loads more — Snowflake Bentley of Jericho, for example, who invented micro-photography, and Samuel Morey, who patented the first paddle wheel steamer and invented the internal combustion engine.

Recent innovators

Judging from the creative folks we’ve covered in Business People’s 35 years of publishing, innovation is alive and well here, as our online bibliography can attest. With apologies to the many, many innovators we’ve written about who aren’t mentioned below, we present this sampler of business people in Vermont who have followed their inventive muses.

innovators_8burton0008_0119Jake Burton Carpenter, Burton Snowboards, August 2000

Burton Snowboards

Our cover story in August 2000 featured Jake Burton Carpenter, who turned the idea of “Snurfing” into Burton Snowboards, a company that now holds about half of the $400 million industry’s market share and became a legend. Burton is back on the slopes after a siege from a rare disorder called Miller Fisher syndrome. The variant of Guillain-Barré syndrome, which he came down with in 2015 following knee surgery, paralyzed him and required his being fed through tubes and strapped to a breathing machine.

innovators_3bia0307_0119Thomas, Hannah, and Robin Grace, Bia Diagnostics, March 2017

Bia Diagnostics

The opening of our March 2017 story on Bia Diagnostics in Colchester says, “Some families bond over dinners, movie nights, or sporting events. The Grace family does things differently: They bond over allergen testing.”

Thomas Grace was working for a British firm that specialized in food-testing kits when he realized there was only one laboratory in North America doing allergen testing, and it took several days to provide results. He decided to open Bia Diagnostics, and provide results in one day. He and his daughter, Hannah, launched the company in February 2007. Four years later, his wife (and Hannah’s mother), Robin, joined them. Hannah has left for other pursuits but remains part of the decision-making process.

innovators_20698idx0119Henry Tufo, Bob Hoehl, and Rich Tarrant of IDX, June 1998

IDX

We put the late Bob Hoehl and Rich Tarrant, the founders of IDX, on our cover twice: first in September 1985, and then in June 1998. The 1985 piece told how the two St. Michael’s basketball buddies and former IBMers had turned an idea and a $12,500 investment in 1969 into Interpretive Data Systems, a then 16-year-old business designing and selling software systems to the medical industry with 200 employees and annual sales of $20 million.

By 1998, Henry Tufo had joined them as chief operating officer, and the company, then called IDX, had gone public. The office on its 14-acre campus in South Burlington had blossomed to 143,000 square feet of space, the employees had grown to 2,000, and annual sales had leapt to $134.5 million. IDX was acquired by General Electric and incorporated into its GE Healthcare business in 2006.

innovators_7stiller03020119Robert Stiller, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, February 2003

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters

We featured Robert Stiller, the founder of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, in our February 2003 cover story. By then, the coffee shop Stiller had opened in 1981 had been recognized by Forbes, Business Week, and Fortune as one of America’s fastest growing small companies. It went public in 1993.

In 1996, Green Mountain introduced Certified Organic coffee and formed a partnership with Keurig Inc., buying a 35 percent interest, to carry its one-cup brewing system (the K-Cup). In 1997 it became the first roaster to offer coffee in a K-Cup for the Keurig Single-Cup Brewing System. By 2006, Green Mountain had completed its full acquisition of Keurig.

Stiller stepped down as president and CEO in 2007, but remained chairman until 2012, and in 2014, the company changed its name to Keurig Green Mountain. A group of investors acquired it and, in 2016, it became a privately held company once again. In July 2018, Keurig Green Mountain merged with Dr Pepper Snapple Group to become Keurig Dr Pepper.

innovators_4nutfree11060119Gail and Mark Elvidge, Vermont Nut Free Chocolates, November 2006

Vermont Nut Free Chocolates

As we wrote in our November 2006 story, Gail Elvidge was a stay-at-home mom in 1994 when her 8-month-old son, Tanner, broke out in hives after a bite of peanut butter. She became a woman on a mission determined to make treats Tanner could eat. After countless phone calls failed to find nut-free products, she decided to make treats for him at home. Even then she couldn’t find resources and began phoning manufacturers, asking questions, checking their procedures.

What began as trying to make fun, solid chocolate shapes for her son as treats turned into a collection of recipes honed over the years to use ingredients she knew to be safe. She played with them, developing fancier items like truffles, fruit creams, and caramels, until 1998, when she decided to start a nut-free chocolate company to help others in the same boat.

Vermont Nut Free Chocolates outgrew Gail’s home kitchen, so she and her husband, Mark, who was working at a duty-free shop on the Canadian border across from Champlain, New York, bought the former Merchants Bank building in South Hero, where the business stayed until moving to a new building in Island Industrial Park in 2005. Last fall, the company relocated to a 17,500-square-foot space at Brentwood Park in Colchester.

IBM

innovators_9stantin11890119Jack Stanton, November 1989

No story about innovators would be complete without a mention of IBM, which has had a presence in Essex Junction since opening a manufacturing facility there in 1957. The company defined innovation throughout the 20th century.

Business People–Vermont has presented five stories about IBMers over the years, beginning with our July 1988 feature on Steve Gardner, local director of personnel. The story cited his job as one of the most challenging personnel management positions in the state, overseeing a department of 100 employees and 13 managers and dealing with the individual problems of IBM’s 7,500 employees at the time. We weren’t able to find current information on him.

The late Jack Stanton, IBMs transportation guru, was the cover guy in our November 1989 issue. It’s not unfair to say that he was a community asset for IBM, serving two terms as president of the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce and influencing transportation issues in Chittenden County for nearly 30 years.

innovators_1kaplsalis09910119Chris Kapsalis, September 1991

Our September 1991 piece on Chris Kapsalis profiled an employee whom IBM lent, for two years, as a special consultant to then-Commissioner Rick Mills at the state Department of Education. Kapsalis’s efforts were devoted to creating partnerships among students, schools, parents, communities, and businesses, and to help those in the department understand how to apply business quality processes to education.

innovators_6geipel02030119Hank Geipel, March 2002

The late Hank Geipel, subject of our March 2002 cover story, was vice president and business line executive for IBM’s Microelectronics Division worldwide and manager of the infrastructure at the Vermont location. By then, the company had moved its Power PC technology from only personal computer applications to mainframe and consumer electronics, and the Vermont site was part of IBM Microelectronics, a division of the Technology Group of IBM.

innovators_5bombardier10140119Janette Bombardier, January 2014

When we featured her in our January 2014 issue, Janette Bombardier was site manager at IBM, the first woman to hold the senior location executive position in Vermont. Although the company was guarded about its employment numbers, it remained Vermont’s largest private employer with some 4,000 people reportedly working at the site at that time.

After Global Foundries took over the IBM location in 2015, Bombardier stayed on as site manager until April 2017, when she retired and joined Green Mountain Power Corp. Since August 2018, she has been chief technology officer at Chroma Technology of Bellows Falls.

Lucky Vermont. •