Matt Gulick shows his product, Pourzilla, to an attendee at the Don Ryan Center for Innovation kick-off for the HEROES initiative, of which Gulick is a member. LYNNE COPE HUMMELL

Matt Gulick might have been the unexpected star of the show at the kick-off celebration May 20 at the Don Ryan Center for Innovation (DRCI) for its newest program.

HEROES is a mentoring program focused on entrepreneurs who are either military veterans or first responders. 

Gulick, who retired from the U.S. Marine Corps in 2007, is the first veteran signed up for the program. With his mentor, Kevin Ryan, standing next to him at the outdoor podium and speaking about the program, Gulick suddenly ran off toward the DRCI building. 

He returned shortly with a prototype of his product to show the gathered audience. Pourzilla, he said, is a gadget that screws into a bag of dog food, for instance, stays put while pouring out the kibble, and has a screw top to reseal the bag. 

As he poured dog food into his hand, he realized he had nowhere to stash it while he spoke, so he tried to sneak it into his pocket. The crowd chuckled.

“The whole premise is to keep your packaged products fresh,” Gulick said to a smaller crowd gathered around him after the ceremony. “It screws right into the package.” 

Gulick said he began working on the product about six years ago. “I started making a prototype with PVC. Then I did a test with a 3-D printer,” he said. “I quickly realized I needed to learn CAD (computer aided design). And now my functionality is 8 out of 10.”

Gulick said he enlisted the help of some SCAD design students to help refine his design.

Mike Levine, CEO of the Center for Innovation, said the HEROES initiative came about as an idea to help returning members of the military become entrepreneurs. 

“We named it HEROES because that’s what they are,” Levine said. “No acronym, just all caps to signify their importance in our community.”

The program was funded through a Relentless Challenge grant, offered through the S.C. Department of Commerce’s Office of Innovation and awarded in January this year. “When we found out we won, I was like a 10-year-old boy at Christmas,” Levine said.

The grant provided for the hiring of a program director. Brad Barnett was hired in March, at which time there were six participants in the program.

Barnett said he had worked for the U.S. Department of Defense for 32 years, serving as a career Air Force command pilot. 

The HEROES program has grown under his watch. “It’s going much quicker than anyone expected,” he said. 

Each participant in the program has a mentor. Gulick’s mentor, Ryan, said he signed up because he too is a veteran, having served two tours in Iraq as an infantry officer. As the son of the late Don Ryan, founder of the organization, and currently a board member, he is especially fond of the center’s innovative programming. “It was a no-brainer for me,” he said.

“We are always looking for more mentors,” Levine said. “We’re looking for people who want to give back, particularly in the finance and tech areas.”

Levine said it’s important to the success of DRCI for the community to know about all of their programs and offerings. “There is no charge to become a member,” he said. “And we’d like people to spread the word about us – to anyone who is even just thinking about becoming an entrepreneur.”

For more information, visit donryancenter.com.