Wheel of fortune?

Daniel Wood and self balancing unicycleIt’s a bit like straddling something from “The Jetson’s.” And with its low-grade hum and slight vibration, it feels like it might lift off like a Jetson’s car, too. But the Self Balancing Unicycle (SBU), the brainchild of 32-year-old Daniel Wood, keeps one tire firmly on the ground as it spins along at up to 12 miles per hour on a battery pack that will transport you ten miles.

While the SBU is similar in concept to the Segway, an electric-battery powered people mover, the unicycle weighs just 29 pounds, making it a portable commuter option for city dwellers, who can tote it inside for a charge-up between trips.

For Wood, the creation and the company it spawned, Camas-based Focus Designs, is something of a hobby turned lifeline. The self-taught engineer found himself out of work after a layoff from US Digital about two years ago. Lacking a sheepskin, a requisite for most engineering jobs, Wood faced a near-impossible job market during the height of the recession.

Enter “Gimpy,” a GI Joe-sized prototype he’d been toying with in the hopes of crafting a people-sized one. Wood wondered if he could refine the model he’d been tinkering with for several years and form a business, too. That led him to the Self-Employment Assistance Program, a State of Washington unemployment program that helps unemployed residents build a business and hone entrepreneurial skills while collecting unemployment benefits.

“It was a huge blessing to have that,” said Wood, a soft-spoken man whose face lights up when pointing out design components and circuitry in his $1,500 rigs.

That first year was a skin-of-the teeth time for Wood. He honed the SBU design, built, marketed and distributed them, too, selling about 50 units. Meanwhile, he was working on the Version 2.0 – an updated model with an internal drive and other design modifications, released in October, 2010.

In contrast to Wood’s first-year sales, 65 of the newly designed SBUs have sold in the six months since its release.

“We’re selling one a day now,” he said.

Business growth led Wood to partner with David Martschinske, a 25-year-old mechanical engineer who worked with the unicycle designer during his days at US Digital.

The duo recently scored their first investor – a move they hope will lead to more investments and more products. They also contracted with ControlTek, a Vancouver electrical device manufacturer, to build the SBUs.

“It’s great that we can focus on the design,” Wood said during a tour of the production facility.

The majority of the components are manufactured in and around the Vancouver area, a strategy that Wood said keeps them close to the production process, keeps jobs in the region and is cheaper to manage than shipping designs offshore and importing the finished product.

“We’re able to think collaboratively, as a team,” Martschinske said.

Most of Focus Designs’ customers are 30-something men, with California as the largest domestic market and sales hailing from Russia, Germany and Switzerland, as well.

To generate interest, Wood and Martschinske work the social networking scene, with YouTube videos – including one featuring Adam Savage from the hit Discovery Channel television series “MythBusters.” The duo also takes their Self Balancing Unicycles on tour, offering free lessons and rides.

“People don’t actually believe it exists until they see it in person,” Wood said.

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