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INNOVATE

A ‘Shark Tank’ Entrepreneur’s Drive Continues, Even After His Passing

Before his death, the 35-year-old founder handed control of his company to his wife and best friend, saying they could keep it going or let it die with him.

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BY Emily Canal - 05 Mar 2019

Ryan Frayne in his workshop in August 2017.

CREDIT: Chris Beier

Ryan Frayne spent his life inventing--even when his time was drawing short.

In his mid-20s, before he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, he created Windcatcher, a mattress pad that fully inflated with just a few breaths. It landed him on Shark Tank in October 2015, where the celebrity investors fought each other for a chance to partner with him.

Three years later, while dying and too weak to hold a pencil, he was still inventing: he conceptualized and described to family members an IV stand that could automatically plug itself into a wall to charge, eliminating the hassle a patient would face plugging it in or being tethered to a device with a cord.

"A lot of stuff like that--he didn't have a chance to make," Ryan's older brother Shawn Frayne said last summer. "Maybe one day we'll be able to."

Before his death on June 5, 2018, the 35-year-old Ryan handed control of his company to his wife, Geneve Nguyen, and best friend, Oren Hanson, and said they could keep it going or let it die with him. The pair launched an Indiegogo campaign on March 4, fundraising to produce a longer, wider mattress pad that inflates even faster than its predecessor. If that's successful, the duo hopes to continue Frayne's legacy by bringing to market some of his other creations.

"I know if I don't try something, I will always worry," Nguyen says. "It's important to me to get some of his things out there to make other people's lives easier. That was Ryan's whole point of inventing."

Nguyen and Hanson seek to raise $50,000 during the month-long campaign, which, they say, would bank enough funding to produce a new airpad. If they reach $75,000, Hanson says, the company will be on steadier footing and booking $150,000 in funding means it can start producing a fast-inflating pillow that Frayne also created.

If the campaign succeeds, Nguyen and Hanson will reach out to Windcatcher's former distributors to reestablish relationships and alert previous clients like Amazon, Walmart, and Costco that the company has been revived. However, if the campaign doesn't succeed, Nguyen can decide to step back from the startup and sell Frayne's patents.

"Without funding or backers, Windcatcher at this point would be done," says Hanson, who will be taking over as CEO of the company. "We want to give this another push and put out the other products Ryan was working on."

Frayne with his newborn daughter Leo, shortly after her birth in March 2018. CREDIT: Chris Beier

A legacy continued

Inc. wrote about Frayne in August 2017 as he imagined what Windcatcher would look like without him, the inventor and founder. He wanted his products to survive his death so he could support the people he loved and those who helped him run the company as he battled cancer. That includes Nguyen, Hanson and, more recently, Frayne's daughter Leo, who was born just a few months before his death.

"I will do what I can to help get my best friend's daughter to college," Hanson says. "[Windcatcher] is a little piece of him I still have."

However, running this business is emotionally complex for Hanson and Nguyen. Recently, as she was racing from a hotel to her car, trying to make an appointment with her family, the hotel clerk urged her to slow down and said, "you have your whole life ahead of you." Except, she realized, she may not.

"Well, you don't always [have your whole life] and that is something I've been battling with," Nguyen says. "I do want to enjoy what life we do have, but I also want to think about Ryan and how he had very limited time."

Frayne created Windcatcher after watching Shawn struggle to inflate a floating beach toy on a family trip to Hawaii in 2011. He knew he could make something to solve that problem and created a valve--which became the backbone for his startup's products--that amplifies the airflow entering such a toy or air mattress by ten- or 15-fold. He launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2013, which nearly tripled its goal of $50,000, then landed on Shark Tank, where Lori Greiner offered him $200,000 for 5 percent of his company and said she'd fund his purchase orders. His increasingly successful path took an unexpected turn when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and faced legal issues with another company.

Frayne and Nguyen in December 2017, before she gave birth. CREDIT: Chris Beier

A 'Shark Tank' miracle

Nguyen and Frayne may not have reconnected if it wasn't for Shark Tank. They originally met in Bellevue, Wa. in 2006, when they were both hired on the same day to work at Chuck E. Cheese. Frayne had a crush: she didn't. They became friends but lost touch when Frayne moved out of state.

Ten years later, Nguyen was cooking and listening to Shark Tank when she heard a familiar voice. She looked up and saw Frayne beaming from her TV screen. She congratulated him on the deal through Facebook and, after a few months of chatting via FaceTime, she visited him in Brooklyn in March of 2016.

She thought it was a "friend thing." He bought candles. One month after reuniting, Frayne and Nguyen moved in together. Nguyen originally began working at Windcatcher as its vice president and head of customer relations, but stopped her full-time duties to care for Frayne after his chemo treatments. Now, she's returning to Windcatcher as the vice president.

"He wanted a legacy so that we'd be taken care of, because he felt like he wouldn't be here to do that for us," Nguyen said. "But he is here, with all of the patents and all the notes he's left me.

 

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