Inspired by a bad break, former Duke football players create a company

People often warn, “Don’t start a company with your friends.” But Kevin Gehsmann B.S.E. ’19, Clark Bulleit B.S.E. ’19, now a first-year medical student at Duke, and Tim Skapek B.S.E. ’20, all former Duke football players and Pratt School of Engineering alumni, didn’t listen to that advice.

Leveraging their Duke experience, the trio founded PROTECT3D, a company that makes custom protective splints, pads, and braces for athletes using 3D printing.

Since launching in 2019, the business has taken off. They’ve won more than $100,000 in awards and grants and brought in more than $1.25 million in private funding. They’ve opened an FDA-regulated 3D printing manufacturing facility in downtown Durham, and they’ve partnered with Duke, North Carolina State University, and professional football and hockey teams to bring their custom products to athletes. They even created an iPad app that allows athletic trainers to do body scans of athletes to get accurate measurements for the printed gear.

Gehsmann, Bulleit, and Skapek were just three Pratt undergraduates experimenting with 3D-printed protective athletic gear in Duke’s Innovation Co-Lab in 2018 when Duke’s then quarterback, Daniel Jones ’19, broke his left collarbone in a game. Hap Zarzour, executive director of athletic medicine at Duke, had heard about their work and asked them to print a pad to protect Jones’ collarbone following his surgery. Less than three weeks later, Jones was back out on the field, wearing one of their 3D-printed pads.

“I don’t think any of the three of us thought to ourselves, ‘All right, our focus for the next year is we need to figure out how we can start a company,’ ” Skapek says. “Instead, we started out by applying our learning to help some teammates.”

As for that old saying about working with your friends, the difference maker is that the trio entered entrepreneurship straight from a football-team environment: playing together, showing up for each other, everyone giving their best effort. It built a bond of trust that carries over to their business.

“If you’ve gone to battle with your friends,” Gehsmann says, “then that’s a little bit different.” 

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