Bruce Horovitz, USA TODAY
BALTIMORE (USA TODAY) - Think of this as Under Armour meets American Idol.
Except the idol who walks off with the Big Prize isn't a singer. But a thinker. A thinker who concocted an outside-the-box running shirt that lights up in the dark because the runner's motion makes enough LED energy - activated by magnets - to illuminate it.
USA TODAY was invited behind the scenes to observe this "Future Show" competition hosted by Under Armour, the athletic apparel maker known for its innovative but pricey sports gear. The contest lures inventors from across the nation - all hoping to catch the eye of Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, who started his $2 billion company 17 years ago by innovating a shirt for athletes that pulls moisture away from the body to keep them dry.
This may be Baltimore, but the room oozes Hollywood - like a splashy set from a reality TV show. Seven judges sit in tall, swivel chairs that seem to set them high above the anxious competitors. Four Under Armour video cameras film the event. Rock music pulsates as a giant video image of Julio Jones, an Atlanta Falcon wide receiver and an Under Armour-sponsored athlete, stretches almost across the room. In the center of it all is Plank, 41, who emcees the event, sounding like a charitable Simon Cowell. Attired in his can't-miss, pumpkin-colored Under Armour pullover, Plank shouts out directions as he kicks off the show with this order: "Let's rock 'n' roll."
Under Armour, this day, is like a corporate Dyson vacuum, eager to suck in any great idea. Plank is the first to admit that he and Under Armour have no lock on Big Ideas. "If we make something that wasn't invented here, that's not scandalous," says Plank. "We don't have all the great ideas."
But with competitions like this - which include a $25,000 grand prize and a contract with Under Armour - the company is desperately trying to cajole top innovators to come to Under Armour first with gee-whizzers.
Innovation - not fashion - has emerged as the lifeblood of the $80 billion athletic apparel and equipment business. But in-house innovation is often limited by personnel, budget and corporate culture. So trend-setters like Under Armour are looking outward for technological leaps forward.
Which is why, on this Friday afternoon, seven nervous innovators - weaned from a field of more than 4,000 applicants - have 10 minutes to stand in front Under Armour's founder, and a panel of his peers, and convince the group that they've got The Next Big Thing.
• A concerned father who worried about his teen-age son longboarding at night. So, he devised a motion-based lighting system for the front and back of his son's longboard (a longer type of skateboard). Next, the father tweaked this technology, which he dubbed Light Bohrd, to be placed inside shirts for joggers who run in the dark. The technology is driven by a tiny, rechargeable lithium battery embedded into the apparel.
•A valet parking attendant from San Diego who concocted a hoodie with a hood that conceals a retractable, winter face mask.
• A guy who created a shoe with, what he calls, a built-in air conditioner.
• A music-loving, former NFL football star, who teamed with an inventor to create wearable headphones that stay snug on the head under most athletic conditions - including a back flip.
• A tech guru who devised a footwear insole, with the help of laser tracking, that guarantees perfect alignment.
• An inventor who re-designed the baseball bat knob to align with a hitter's natural motion.
• A frustrated father who created an athletic bag with a special zipper and netting across the bottom for instant debris removal.
Concocting The Next Big Thing for Under Armour is no small thing. Even if it's a newfangled zipper.
Two years ago, the winner devised a made-for-athletes zipper that can be zipped with one hand: UA MagZip. It has two tiny magnetic barrels that automatically pull together when held close. In fall 2014, it will show up on 400,000 Under Armour jackets - and could ultimately be used in all Under Armour outwear.
Never mind that before MagZip came along, Under Armour's internal R&D team spent two years trying to develop a better zipper. "We couldn't get it to work," concedes Kevin Haley, innovation chief at Under Armour. But thanks to a Future Show winner, Under Armour is about to zip ahead of the curve, he says.
But this year's winning presentation was all about lights. Mason, the 13-year-old son of Light Bohrd founder Chris Forgey, demonstrated how the lights work on his longboard. Chris then showed how the same kind of lights work on a jogger's T-shirt.
Plank loved it. But he showed serious reservations about the cost. Haley, the innovation guru, estimated the shirts might have to cost as much as $250.
That's when Plank put Mason on the spot. He asked the eighth-grader what he thought about the light-up shirt that his dad created. Mason's response, in his down-home, Austin lingo: "It's pretty legit."
That's all Plank had to hear.
The contestants were asked to leave the room while the panel of Under Armour executives deliberated. The discussion focused on the light-up jogging shirt.
"Can we do it for fall '15?" posed Plank.
"We've got to decide if the juice is worth the squeeze," replied Haley.
Plank - and his crew - decided that it was, in part because the technology could be spread across Under Armour lines, from jackets to T-shirts to backpacks.
The super-nervous contestants all were gathered back in the room.
"There is nothing lost on what each and every one of you did to get to this point," said Plank. "I've been there."
From last to first, Plank recited how the panel voted on each competitor. But before he did, he reminded them, "Just by getting here, you've already won."
When Plank named Light Bohrd the winner, it took a few moments for founder Chris Forgey to realize he'd won. He stood in shock. With good reason.
Forgey and his wife, Jennifer, have invested much of their life savings into keeping Light Bohrd afloat. That includes their retirement savings; the college savings for both of their sons, a recent re-fi of their home - and they even sold their family car.
Now, he's got affirmation: One of the coolest makers of athletic apparel has decided that his idea is as good as - if not better than - any of its own.
"I dreamed of this," says Forgey, his eyes tearing up. "We put our lives at financial risk to get here. This validates what we've done."
Or, as his teen son, Mason, likes to say: It's pretty legit.