When Osceola High junior Joey Sleppy was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in middle school, he was crushed. He loved physical activities but did not have the energy for them. He put on weight and lost his hearing. "It was hard to stay fit," the 16-year-old recalled. It wasn't until high school, with the help of a weight-lifting coach, that Sleppy got his strength back. And thanks to cochlear implants, his hearing is restored. Today, he has a 4.5 GPA, runs track, swims, does bench presses and plays baseball and lacrosse. And recently he won a $10,000 grant to start his own business.
The award is the first of its kind from the Pinellas Education Foundation's Next Generation Entrepreneurs Program. Sleppy edged out 75 students from 15 Pinellas County high schools to win the yearlong competition that helps students develop business skills.
"He's a driven young man, He's got a passion for what he does," said Terry Boehm, president of the foundation. "What he developed was adaptive exercise equipment for folks with disabilities."
The idea for the equipment took shape during a class assignment involving engineering design software. Sleppy decided to create a tool that would help wounded veterans or those with hand injuries to do pushups.
Called Pushup Assistant, the device relies on airbag compression to hold a person by their forearms, keeping strain off of the wrists.
He bounced problems off his engineering teacher, Gary Shepard. When a foundation official came by to spread the word about the competition, Sleppy was hooked.
"It clicked in Joe's head; he had always thought about devices to help people," Shepard said. "He came in and told me about his idea and it took off from there. … I am amazed. I would have never thought of something like that."
The fact that the device can benefit others was what made it stand out, said Kurt Long, a judge in the competition and the CEO of FairWarning Inc., a Clearwater-based health information security company that sponsored the grant.
To make the final cut, students competing for the grant had to write a business plan and pitch it to a panel of judges, Long said. Projects presented by finalists included edible cupcake liners, a UV light doorknob sanitizer and a mobile device app that can identify poisonous plants and animals.
To win the competition, students have to show their projects can become viable businesses and can make a difference in their customers' lives.
"Joe's project best serves all those ideas," Long said.
However, Sleppy won't be receiving the award in one lump sum, he said.
He'll get payments based on milestones such as registering the business and developing a Web presence, under the guidance of mentors including Long.
Eventually, the money will allow him to develop prototypes, Sleppy said.
"Once I get that, I can create five products and get that to a veterans hospital to test it so different people can try them out and give me suggestions," he said. "With the suggestions … I can redesign it again. Then I can patent the idea and get more investment so I can produce more. I want the product to come out next year."
This is the kind of thinking foundation officials say they want to foster through the competition. They want students to think about career development and, perhaps, alternatives to college.
"One of the failures of education today is it's not providing students with career planning," Boehm said. "There are plenty of reasons to go to college and get a degree. But the idea of going to college and getting just any degree, that is foolish. That is not a fair way to prepare kids for the future."
The competition and the Next Generation Entrepreneurs Program is meant to get students thinking about their careers, Boehm said.
Even though Sleppy is set up to create his own business, he still wants to get a mechanical engineering degree.
"I'm absolutely going to college," he said. "I have faith in that my business will be successful, but education is very important. It's a safety net. I love school, I like being taught and I love learning."