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How a former Maryland tight end is echoing Under Armour in the business world

Matt Furstenburg recognized a problem when he played football at Maryland, so he co-founded a company that aims to fix it. Sound familiar?

Matt Furstenburg GripBoost Courtesy of Grip Boost

It's not a new thing for Maryland football players to identify equipment problems and start companies to address them.

Maryland special teams captain Kevin Plank, in 1995, observed that his teammates' cotton shirts were too frequently logged with sweat. So he started making a new fabric, and the Terrapins tested it. Now Under Armour can gross $4 billion in a single year.

Former Maryland tight end Matt Furstenburg's new venture is not on nearly that scale, and few companies ever will be. But Furstenburg is trying to make his way in the business world in a similar fashion.

He noted during his playing career at Maryland, from 2008 to 2012, that football gloves normally lost their stickiness quickly. So his hands didn't have as much tack in the fourth quarter as they did in the first. That created problems, even for players whose jobs didn't include pass-catching.

"Some defensive linemen like grip on their gloves, to grab linemen and throw them, or get ahold of their jersey or anything like that," Furstenburg said in a recent interview. "To get a hold of the quarterback, especially."

So Furstenburg and his associates founded Grip Boost, a company that makes a gel that aims to keep gloves stickier for longer, in August 2014. They worked closely with Maryland's Office of Technology Commercializing, which helps students develop business ideas.

"I just basically noticed the problem in the everyday football market," Furstenburg said. "I was a player, so I kind of knew what was out there and what wasn't and what we were currently using."

Furstenburg linked up with Chanda Arya and Kevin Diehn, who were chemical engineering Ph.D. students at Maryland while Furstenburg played for Randy Edsall's football team. Both were interested in sports, and they became part of a five-person co-founding group along with Furstenburg.

The end-game goal was simple: to design a substance that would make football gloves more consistently sticky. But there were challenges beyond simply developing the product and bringing it to market. Specifically, they needed to create something that high school and college football compliance agencies wouldn't reject out of hand.

"One of the key challenges was making something that was legal," Diehn said.

That meant leaving no residue on the ball and restoring gloves' tack to their original state but not beyond, which compliance people wouldn't like.

Grip Boost's team paid visits to the Gossett Team House over a two-year period leading toward launch time, and Edsall let them test the gel on his players. Former Maryland lineman Joe Vellano and receiver Kevin Dorsey were among the first players to try it out. The company ran through about 25 prototypes of its design.

It became clear to Furstenburg, Arya and Diehn that the gloves didn't dry quickly enough, and they sometimes used hair dryers to wring them out. So the company made chemical changes, and they now say the gel dries automatically in 15 to 20 seconds.

"We started with this very specific problem for football," Arya said. "‘Hey, these receiver gloves are wearing down. What's the simplest, most effective way to restore grip without making a huge mess?'"

The company has expanded to baseball, softball and now golf. In baseball, it bills Grip Boost as a tidy alternative to pine tar, easily applied to batting gloves. The compliance challenges in baseball are far fewer, which helps, too.

"For baseball, we can kind of crank things way up," Diehn said.

In the year after its launch, Grip Boost said it sold about 300 bottles of gel. The next year, that figure was about 10,000, the business says, and it's on pace for 30,000 this year. Its team, which currently includes three full-time and two part-time workers, works out of a lab on UMBC's Halethorpe, Md., campus. They sell two-ounce bottles of the gel for $12.99 and, in a reminder that the company is still young, recently launched a crowdfunding campaign.

"Every time someone looks at our company, every three months, it's radically different," Arya said.

Maryland has developed a reputation over the last few decades as a strong place for entrepreneurship. The most public face of that image is Plank, who runs an annual student business competition there and has given the school a remarkable amount of dollars since Under Armour's liftoff.

When Furstenburg and his colleagues were working on Grip Boost in the two years leading up to its launch, Plank became an occasional but helpful resource. He and Furstenburg have a good bit in common, company size notwithstanding.

"I followed Kevin Plank all throughout college and looked up to him as an entrepreneur," Furstenburg said. "He found the common problem of a T-shirt. I found a common problem. I don't know if this is the same class as Under Armour, but I kind of found the niche market that we're in."