Originally published March 3, 2014.
He's only 18, but a high school student with ties to Huntington County is on track to become an entrepreneur if his high-speed invention becomes a reality.
Julian Erickson, of Fort Wayne, who grew up in Warren and attended Huntington North High School, came up with a design for motorized inline roller skates when his passion for skating developed a need for more speed.
The journey to build a better pair of skates began about two years ago, when Erickson needed something fun to occupy his summer.
"I became obsessed with inline skating," he says. "For me, it's only exciting when I'm going fast."
The teen discovered obstacles to keeping his skates rolling, such as wind, rough roads and uphill inclines. Adding a motorized boost to the skates seemed like the natural solution.
Motorized skates are not a new concept, but after doing a lot of research, Erickson felt the designs already out there were too impractical for some serious skating. So he came up with his own design, using professional CAD modeling software to create the kind of equipment he says can propel a skater as fast as 55 kilometers per hour - or about 34 mph.
"I developed a system where the power for the motor is on a backpack and it uses a fluid transmission system down to the boots, so the boots can still be lightweight," he explains. "When I skate myself, I feel the ability to handle higher speeds - I just don't have the power to. ... I've never seen anything like my design - not yet, at least."
The system also uses gloves with controls, allowing the skater to set the speed on each individual boot. The gloves have a touch slider on the side of the index finger that can be operated by the thumb.
"The reason why I have it so you can put all the power into one boot and deactivate the other is because if you put all of your power in the one boot, it will allow you to go faster, but you'll have less torque," Erickson says. "I've designed these skates so that it's really easy to control the speed of each boot so new users can adjust the max speed, so they can't accidentally go too fast."
He also built a rough prototype pair of skates as part of the development phase of his project. He says professional skaters can often manage speeds up to 34 mph, especially on hills, and he hopes the fully-developed skates will appeal to them as well as drum up a resurgence in enthusiasm for the sport.
Erickson designed not only all the functional parts, he also turned out computer-generated 3-D renderings of the designs on the skates he has dubbed Drift Gear. He has also developed a comprehensive business plan for his company, Build Base, which can be seen on his website, www.driftgear . info/.
Erickson took engineering classes while he was at HNHS, but he credits his initial interest in inventing while he was a member of the Team T.H.R.U.S.T. 4-H Robotics Club. His talent amazed the team's lead mentor, Chris Elston.
"He was in seventh or eighth grade when he came on the team for the first time, and he was very mature for his age at the time," Elston says, adding Erickson, along with his dad, devised several robot prototypes for the club.
Elston remembers one incident in particular, in 2010, when the team was challenged to build a robot to play soccer. The group was struggling with how to make the robot "kick" the soccer ball.
"Julian came up with the idea to use just a simple hammer-like kicker. We were all just kind of dumbfounded at the time. When Julian made the prototype he attached a kicker device that was weighted down," Elston says.
"When he made the presentation to the team, Julian's words were, ‘Well, you know it kind of just comes down to basic physics. If you want to kick the ball you have to have a mass that's equal or greater than the mass of the ball.' And all of us who were engineers were standing around thinking, ‘Man, he's right!' So when he fired off his prototype ... it kicked the ball like 20 feet."
Elston adds he is equally, if not more, impressed with Erickson's designs for Drift Gear.
Erickson's father, Mark Erickson, of Warren, says his son has always had an intense passion for learning.
"His drive is a total frustration of not understanding something," Mike Erickson says. "He would get so upset when he couldn't understand something."
Julian got his first robotics kit when he was 9. It was a watershed moment in his life.
"At that time he was home-schooled," Mike Erickson says. "From the moment he got that robot he just couldn't learn fast enough."
Erickson hopes to hire a patent attorney to navigate the process of patenting his designs. In the meantime, he has set up a donation site for Drift Gear at www.indiegogo.com/projects/646104/emal/  to raise the funds needed to make his dream a reality. He also plans to study engineering in college. And five years from now, Erickson envisions he'll be in the mass production phase of his project and eventually see the skates used by professional athletes in races.