After a debilitating motorcycle accident, former Marine John Miller, saw opportunity in the face of adversity.
Crushed by the weight of his Harley after an SUV ran over him, he wondered, “How could this happen?” Miller’s motorcycle was well lit at night from the front and back, but those lights weren’t visible from the side.
Lucky to be alive, Miller set out to solve the problem that caused the accident. With the help of a veteran’s group in Milwaukee, Wis, he launched an entrepreneurial venture, Illumatek, offering a new product that could prevent accidents like this in the future.
His invention takes custom-etched windshields to the next level, illuminating them with neon-colored fiber optics. After a long process of trial and error, and five years waiting for a patent, Miller perfected his “glowshield” and found a renewed sense of purpose.
Following his military service more than a decade earlier, the veteran moved between a wide variety of employment. Injured on the job as a respiratory therapist, he was told he would not work again. Faced with the reality of living on monthly disability checks, he felt lost. Ironically, it was the accident — and the development of his glowshield — that sparked an entrepreneurial spirit that helped him cope through the painful surgeries that followed.
Hiring disabled vets was a priority
Investors were eager to join his team in the early days of Illumatek, but Miller worried about their motives and losing control of the company. His hesitation was not unfounded. They were looking to outsource manufacturing to China in an effort to cut costs. Miller refused. He wanted to hire disabled veterans (especially those returning home from Afghanistan and Iraq). Like his beloved Harley-Davidson, he wanted to establish his manufacturing facility in Wisconsin.
The organization offers entrepreneurship training, office resources, networking, and capital-raising assistance at no cost to veterans. As one veteran entrepreneur puts it, “the overwhelming aspects are taken out, so you can focus on getting your business off the ground.” Miller says that working with the team “was like doing 3 years of networking in a week.”
Veteran entrepreneurs share a common foundation that makes them eager to help one another. Just ask former Sailor of the Year, Ronnie Reum, who sought to accelerate his cleaning company, but after sitting next to Miller’s Illumatek display every day (which includes a brilliantly illuminated Harley-Davidson), he began devising business strategies that would help his fellow comrade.
The two formed a strong connection. Reum (pictured, left) was also recovering from a serious auto accident and had spent fourteen months in a hospital, learning to walk all over again. By the time he recovered in 2011, his career in real estate had dissolved and he’d lost everything. Reum joined Miller in his venture, using his sales and networking expertise to take Illumatek to the next level. This type of collaboration is natural for military folks, whose training instills in them a strong sense of teamwork.
From adversity to success with a little help from the V.A.
Today, Illumatek is expanding rapidly. Their neon-colored glowshields and wind deflectors, available at various Harley-Davidson dealerships, are selling briskly.
“When dealers see the product, the average time it takes to sell is three minutes,” says Miller.
The two are excited to take their business beyond just motorcycles. Already, they’ve been approached about creating windshields for vehicles from snowmobiles to ATVs. A Florida woman even prepaid so she can have the very first Illumatek windshield for her golf cart.
For these two resilient veterans, the future looks as bright as as a Las Vegas night. Within the year they’ll be moving into their own manufacturing facility and creating jobs for veterans returning home from overseas. It’s been a remarkable journey for these two heroes. Excited but humble, the two find constant motivation in helping other veterans, and most importantly keeping people safe.
As Miller puts it, “If it saves one biker’s life, I’ve done my job.”
Veteran Entrepreneurial Transfer, Inc., (VETransfer.org), funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs as a pilot program, offers training, resources, and mentoring in Milwaukee, Wis. to veterans with entrepreneurial endeavors.