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New hands-free door opener enters market

Springfield father and son are co-inventors of Z-Handle, competing with StepNpull for sales

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As one local hands-free door opener hit new heights in sales after 13 years on the market, another Springfield invention has just come online.

Z-Handle, a patent-pending sanitary door opener, is the invention of Todd Kennedy and his father, Tom. The z-shaped, hands-free device installs behind a metal plate commonly found on public bathroom doors, allowing users to open the doors with their forearms and avoid touching the handles.

“It’s got rounded edges and it’s real ergonomic,” Todd Kennedy said of the product he and his dad researched, designed and developed in less than a month. “The over 90-degree bend in it actually gives it some added strength as opposed to a straight 90-degree angle. It doesn’t take a lot of pressure to pull a door open with your forearm.”

The Z-Handle joins StepNpull as another local hands-free, sanitation-driven product available amid the coronavirus pandemic. StepNpull, a foot-operated door opener launched in 2007, is on pace to sell 150,000-200,000 units in 2020, co-owner Mike Sewell recently told Springfield Business Journal. If reached, StepNpull sales would represent an increase of at least 1,000% over 2019, when revenue hit an all-time high of $336,000.

Kennedy started making Z-Handle sales in late April on Amazon.com. It retails for $30. He said the initial production run was 100 units, and the first local sale and product install was May 7 at health care clinic Ozzie Smith IMAC Regeneration Center in Springfield.

“It fit flawlessly, just like I had hoped,” he said, noting it requires no new drilling to fit to the door. “It literally installs in seconds. That’s the beauty of this.”

The Kennedys have a silent partner in the project, which operates under TEK Industries LLC. Tom Kennedy is a retired General Motors executive, and his son is the creator of Blue Line Business Network, an organization of member businesses that offer discounts to law enforcement officers.

Kennedy said TEK Industries has invested just under $10,000 for Z-Handle production, including the initial order and patent application.

The stainless steel products are made in Springfield, at C&R Metalworks LLC, and Bass Print Solutions supplies accompanying door stickers with an instructional photo.

Product inspiration
Appropriately enough, Kennedy said inspiration for Z-Handle came in the bathroom. In late March, he was returning from a trip to Kansas City and while in a restroom saw a person leave without washing their hands.

“I’ve always been conscious of door handles,” he said. “I’m left staring at this door handle and there’s no paper towels in there. I’m thinking there’s got to be something. There’s got to be a way to have something sticking away from these handles.”

Kennedy, who worked as a sheet metal worker in the 1980s in Dallas, said “the light bulb came on” as he drove back to Springfield.

The initial prototype consisted of a piece of dryer vent sheet metal attached to a two-by-four. Kennedy said he took it to C&R Metalworks to refine a second version, which was then successfully tested at a convenience store bathroom.

“If that baseplate is there, all you have to do is loosen screws, slip it under, tighten them back and you’re out of there,” he said.

Overcoming skepticism
Jeana Scroggins, administrator of the southwest Missouri market for Ozzie Smith IMAC Regeneration Center, said she was a bit skeptical upon first hearing of the product a couple of weeks ago.

“In times of crisis, it’s easy for people to whip up some product. When people are in panic mode, they just tend to grab at whatever,” she said. “So I had him show me exactly the ease of it.”

Scroggins said she had to consider that senior citizens are among clients at the center, which operates two clinics in Springfield, and one each in Monett and Ozark.

“We also have people who have shoulder issues and back issues,” she said. “We have to consider all of our patients.”

Kennedy did the install in about 30 seconds in one of the bathrooms at the center’s East Sunshine Street clinic. Scroggins was the first to try it out and was sold, noting the handle was easy and comfortable to use.

Two handles were purchased for the Sunshine Street clinic, she said, with six additional ones to be ordered for the other three southwest Missouri locations.

Scroggins said some of the center’s patients are autoimmune or compromised, making sanitation and safety vital considerations. Any product that can improve those standards is worth investigating, she said.

“I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the way we used to be, being nonchalant about it,” she said, of society’s view toward opening bathroom doors with hands.

Kennedy said several other small orders, through Amazon, were shipped to businesses in California, Oregon and Georgia. But he’s looking to scale up future unit production through conversations with undisclosed distributors.

“Instead of selling two to four at a time on Amazon, we’d prefer to sell to distributors and let them sell to their end users,” he said. “We haven’t pushed that very hard because it’s only been on the market about two weeks.”

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