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Eau Claire entrepreneur wins prize for invention
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EAU CLAIRE — Her furry black brow tented with the tell-tale look of a black Labrador pleading for a game of fetch, Izzy’s eyes are pointed toward a yellow tennis ball sitting on the garage floor.

Then her head turns up toward Kevin Neff, who often indulges his dog’s seemingly endless interest to chase after a ball.

Izzy’s glance then moves toward a tennis racket with a black rubbery plastic piece attached to it.

The invention is Neff’s way of obliging his energetic dog’s love of fetch, while also saving himself from aggravating an old back injury.

“Izzy is definitely the inspiration behind this whole thing,” Neff said.

Dubbed the Tennis Ball Scoop, the attachment allows a person to grab a ball off the ground without bending over.

The 56-year-old Eau Claire man has tinkered with the design, materials and other details of his invention for about two years, but is soon to start producing it from his home shop.

The product, a clear path to get it to market and Neff’s entrepreneurial energy won over judges in a local business contest earlier this month, earning him the top $5,000 prize.

“What set him apart was how passionate he was for this product and how he emulated how it can help people,” said Tracey Smiskey, Eau Claire market president for Northwestern Bank.

The Chippewa Falls bank sponsors the grand prize for The Idea Challenge, the annual business contest run by the Eau Claire Area Economic Development Corp.

A panel of local business aficionados including Smiskey judged the five finalists who each pitched their entrepreneurial ideas and answered questions through the online videoconferencing service Zoom.

Judges scored the finalists on criteria including the product or service concept, progress toward a prototype, how they address market needs, patent potential, costs, plans for reaching customers, ideas for expansion and how each would use the $5,000 prize to further their business.

In addition to Neff’s excitement and detailed plans for his venture, Smiskey said she appreciated how he explained his product is intended for two different markets — casual athletes and pet owners.

“I really liked that in his presentation,” Smiskey said.

A self-described handyman, Neff said he’s often pondering ways to make some of the simple things in life a little bit easier.

“If I see a problem, I want to solve it,” he said.

One day when he was playing one of Izzy’s lengthy games of fetch, he began brainstorming a way to ease the strain put on a person’s back through the repetitive motion of bending down.

“I thought there’s got to be an easier way to pick up a ball,” Neff said.

Neff had retired from his career as a UPS delivery truck driver due to back problems and figured there are other dog owners and tennis enthusiasts interested in a solution to the problem, too.

Starting with the basic idea of an attachment that fits onto the rim of a tennis racket, he went through multiple iterations of the design.

“Everything has been trial and error for me,” he said.

Along the way he got help from a Chippewa Valley Technical College student and a chemistry professor at UW-Eau Claire, who turned Neff’s designs into reality using 3D printers and worked with him on the prototyping process.

Initially the scoop attachment was made from standard plastic. However, the shock of a ball hitting the racket would travel to the scoop and damage the zip-ties that held it on, causing them to fail prematurely.

So Neff changed the material to a special kind of plastic blended with rubber, which was able to absorb the shock.

The angle of the scoop underwent revisions so it could easily pick up a ball but also hold it in place before a person swings their arm far enough to set it free.

Tennis players had also told Neff they were worried the scoop could cup air and affect the swing of their rackets. This led to larger air relief ports — holes to reduce drag. An added benefit of that was it further trimmed the weight of the scoop.

The version going into production weighs just 0.4 ounces, Neff said.

But after two years of work, he’s happy with the design and demonstrates how it works with his ever-ready assistant.

Neff grips the racket’s handle, lowers its head to the ground and nudges the plastic scoop underneath a tennis ball sitting on his lawn. He raises the racket and ball cradled in the scoop. With a quick flick and turn of his wrist, the scoop releases the ball and the racket sends the florescent yellow orb off past Izzy. The eager dog chases after the bouncing ball while the family’s other black Lab, Mia, is content wandering around Neff’s yard.

Between the estimated 80 million pet owners in the U.S. and 20 million tennis players, Neff expects some will be interested in his invention. Of particular interest is senior citizens who play tennis, badminton, racquetball or pickleball — as his invention can attach to any of those rackets.

“The market is there,” he said.

Next month Neff is planning to travel to Tennessee to pick up the machine he’ll use to make the scoops himself at his home shop. Money from The Idea Challenge will help pay to buy it.

He’s already got a spot on his website, bowtines.com, where the Tennis Ball Scoop is advertised and he’s taking orders. The website is for his first business venture where he produces wax for archery strings and a lubricant used in crossbows.

The scoop is Neff’s first time seeking a patent, though he said he has made other inventions previously but they didn’t yet turn into a business.

Eau Claire health department encouraging tracing app, at-home tests
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EAU CLAIRE — Eau Claire County’s chief health official is asking people to consider two new tools for controlling COVID-19 that the state rolled out this week — a contact tracing app that will alert users if they’re a close contact to someone who’s tested positive, and a free at-home COVID-19 test.

“I would encourage people to take advantage of the (app),” said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, at a Wednesday news conference. “It will give you an idea if you need to be concerned about being a close contact.”

In the next several days, Wisconsin residents with Android or Apple mobile devices will get a notification that will let them choose to download or enable the app, which has been officially dubbed WI Exposure Notification, according to Gov. Tony Evers’ office.

The free app will serve as a voluntary, indirect contact tracing system. Someone who tests positive for COVID-19 can alert the app of their diagnosis, and using Bluetooth signals of other smartphones using the app nearby, the app will alert other smartphone users who have been within six feet for 15 minutes or longer to the person who tested positive, according to Evers’ office. Those people will be told they’re a close contact and should begin quarantining.

Evers’ office said the app doesn’t collect, use or store any GPS or personal data, and that it uses anonymous Bluetooth signals to track the proximity of app users. If someone tests positive for COVID-19, the app won’t release their identity, location, phone number or personal information to that person’s close contacts. (However, the notification will include the date of exposure.)

Giese said she is using the new app herself.

“It’s an opportunity, if I become positive, for my close contacts to be notified,” she said.

“If my children opt in to the app, they will be notified when I push that button if I become positive, because those household contacts of mine would be considered close contacts.”

To enter a positive test result, Wisconsin residents will first have to enter a verification code from a public health agency, according to the app’s privacy policy.

Android users will receive notifications from Google, and iPhone users will get their notifications from Apple, the governor’s office said in a news release.

The app is free, voluntary and can be turned off or uninstalled, depending on the operating system, at any point, according to its privacy policy.

The more people who use the app, the more effective it will be, Evers said.

“Now that we have a vaccine, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, folks, but we’re not in the clear just yet—we still need everyone to do their part to help fight this virus,” he said in a news release this week.

Giese noted Wednesday: “Even more importantly, please don’t put yourself in situations where this app is the only way to know if you’ve been exposed to disease.”

At-home tests rolled out

The state also debuted an at-home COVID-19 test this week. Wisconsin residents will be able to request the saliva collection kits for free, even if they don’t have symptoms of the virus, according to Evers’ office.

The new at-home test is a PCR test done on saliva, the “gold standard” for accuracy in detecting COVID-19, Giese said.

“The test kit takes a little bit to order and arrive at your home,” Giese said, warning people who have symptoms or who are a close contact that they should first look for a faster option: finding a Wisconsin National Guard or community testing site, or getting a test through a health care provider.

Wisconsin residents can request the at-home test kits at tinyurl.com/y7qm3f78.

The test kits will ship directly to peoples’ homes. The test is monitored, meaning people must have access to the internet so a testing supervisor can watch via video call as the person collects a saliva sample, Giese said.

People must then ship the test to a laboratory via UPS dropbox.

“This is an important tool to provide easy access to COVID-19 testing,” said DHS Secretary-designee Andrea Palm in a news release.

Giese warned that even with new tools to track the virus and vaccinations finally coming to the area, the best way to avoid COVID-19 is to stay six feet apart from people outside your home and wear a face mask.

“We still have to keep up with those basics,” Giese said.

County virus data

In Eau Claire County, new cases of the virus are still holding steady, though new hospitalizations and deaths are up slightly compared to last week.

Four county residents died of the virus in the last week, compared to two the week before. A total of 71 residents of the county have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

Fourteen county residents were hospitalized with the virus this week, compared to six the week before. Since March, 280 county residents have been hospitalized with COVID-19, or about 3% of all the county’s known COVID-19 patients.

The county is averaging 46 new cases per day this week, the same as last week, according to county data.

“It is slowing, and that is really good news for all of us,” Giese said. “But it’s still high, and it’s higher in some parts of our county. I’d particularly call out that in the rural parts of our county, and rural areas across the state, cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to grow. I particularly make a plea out to the rural parts of our communities to really lean in to those basic mitigation strategies.”

Testing numbers also rose this week. About 1,350 coronavirus tests were done in the county this week, compared to 1,100 last week. At its latest peak in November, the county was posting 3,800 tests per week, according to county data.

The test-positivity rate — or the percentage of all tests that come back positive — is sitting at 23%. It’s lower than last week’s rate of 29%, a good sign, health officials said. (That figure doesn’t include multiple tests per person, such as a health care worker who might be tested multiple times per week or month.)

The Health Department plans to release its weekly COVID-19 data report today, Giese said.

Trump vetoes defense bill, setting up possible override vote

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump on Wednesday vetoed the annual defense policy bill, following through on threats to veto a measure that has broad bipartisan support in Congress and potentially setting up the first override vote of his presidency.

The bill affirms 3% pay raises for U.S. troops and authorizes more than $740 billion in military programs and construction.

The House was poised to return Monday, and the Senate on Tuesday, to consider votes to override the president’s veto.

Trump’s move provoked swift condemnation, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calling it “an act of staggering recklessness that harms our troops, endangers our security and undermines the will of the bipartisan Congress.”

Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, avoided any criticism of Trump, but called the NDAA “absolutely vital to our national security and our troops. ... Our men and women who volunteer to wear the uniform shouldn’t be denied what they need — ever.”

Long before issuing the veto, Trump offered a series of rationales for rejecting it.

He has called for lawmakers to include limits on social media companies he claimed are biased against him — and to strip out language that allows for the renaming of military bases such as Fort Benning and Fort Hood that honor Confederate leaders. Without going into detail, he has claimed the biggest winner from the defense bill would be China.

In his veto message to the House, Trump cited those objections and stated that the measure “fails to include critical national security measures, includes provisions that fail to respect our veterans and our military’s history, and contradicts efforts by my Administration to put America first in our national security and foreign policy actions. It is a ‘gift’ to China and Russia.”

He also wrote: “Numerous provisions of the Act directly contradict my Administration’s foreign policy, particularly my efforts to bring our troops home.

Both the House and Senate passed the measure by margins large enough to override a veto from the president. Trump had vetoed eight bills previously, but those vetoes were sustained because supporters did not gain the two-thirds vote needed in each chamber for the bill to become law without Trump’s signature.

In advance of the veto, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said the bill would help deter Chinese aggression. Other GOP backers of the measure, including Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the second-ranking Senate leader, and Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, have tweeted that the bill would counter threats from countries such as China.

Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said Trump’s declaration that China was the biggest winner in the defense bill was false. Reed also noted the shifting explanations Trump had given for the veto.

“President Trump clearly hasn’t read the bill, nor does he understand what’s in it,” Reed said. “There are several bipartisan provisions in here that get tougher on China than the Trump Administration has ever been.”

The measure guides Pentagon policy and cements decisions about troop levels, new weapons systems and military readiness, military personnel policy and other military goals. Many programs can only go into effect if the bill is approved, including military construction.

McConnell, in a rare break with Trump, had urged passage despite Trump’s threat to veto it. McConnell said it was important for Congress to continue its nearly six-decade-long streak of passing the defense policy bill.