Adam Malcom – Translating a Passion for Boating into a Solution for Unnecessary Tragedy


The facts about boating deaths are clear. Seven in 10 of all boating deaths are caused by drowning. Fully 80 percent of those victims were not wearing a life preserver. That equates to more than 440 lives unnecessarily lost every year in the U.S. alone.

Adam Malcom (MS, MAE ’06) is a boating enthusiast. He understands the core problem with precision. “Boaters put the jackets on board, often tucked nicely under a seat. I get it. I don’t like to wear them either.” The statistics support this notion as well. Most drowning victims have life jackets available on board and choose not to wear them. In Virginia, the group experiencing the highest incidence of drowning is sportsmen—hunters and anglers—and the events most commonly involve small boats in calm, inland waters.

Malcom’s passion for boating and his training as an engineer intersected in 2006. The BoatUS Foundation sponsored a contest to design a better boating life jacket. In response, Malcom designed an inflatable personal flotation device that emerges from a belt at the waist and unfurls around the body. His submission started a several-years’ journey, beginning with a victory in the BoatUS Foundation contest and continuing with a first-place finish in the 2009 U.Va. Entrepreneurship Cup.

Along the way, Malcom’s design catalyzed global interest, most prominently from the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard. Another U.Va. engineer began to evolve into an entrepreneur as his vision illuminated a path to solving an age-old problem. Now he faced the challenges that all new businesses must overcome in introducing a new product to market: protecting his intellectual property, funding and building safety-certified prototypes and creating a corporate structure to turn his dream into reality.

Soon after, MK Scientific was launched with a friend and fellow member of the U.Va. Engineering community, Scott Kasen (BS, SIE ’01, MS, MSE ’05). In a workshop in Malcom’s basement, the partners started stamping out pieces of nylon fabric, heat-sealing them with urethane, and rigging it all with a dynamic-release liquid CO 2 cartridge that would quickly inflate the device, either manually or when completely submerged— all in an effort to perfect their design and create a prototype.

Six years, tens of thousands of dollars and several design changes later, Malcom is still waiting for final approval of his provisional patent. The partnership with Kasen has dissolved, there still is no functioning prototype, and Malcom admits he’s fallen victim to the pitfall every inventor is warned against. He is hesitant to collaborate with those who could accelerate the process because of the potential for losing control of the project and his investment.

Today, Malcom is continuing his work at the University as a Ph.D. candidate in mechanical and aerospace engineering, and remains remarkably enthusiastic about his product. His current focus is on securing a Small Business Innovation Research grant to continue building a prototype and the business.

“Of course, the process has yielded frustration,” said Malcom. “But I believe in my product, and the experiential aspect of this process is worth all the highs and lows. The light at the end of the tunnel drives me, the potential of the freedom of running my own company. My dreams are out there, and I can achieve them. That’s the exciting part.”

This article originally appeared in UVa Engineering Unbound.