Navigating the Entrepreneurial Landscape with Hoodillow Written by Angelica Cayetano

Above: Eric Hartley, far right, bottom row, and the rest of his team pose for a photo with their cash prizes and trophies. From Back Left; Dr. Ping Lan, Professor of Business Administration and founder of AIC, Lisa Cassino, Vice President of Public Relations for Usibelli Coal Mine, Jack Wilbur (Chair) for Design Alaska, Dr. Mark Herrmann, Associate Dean and Professor of Economics at UAF, and Paul Laywer, Vice President for Academics, Students & Research. Photo courtesy of Eric Hartley.

Eric Hartley, one of the competitors for the 2018 Arctic Innovation Competition (AIC), was a part of the start-up weekend team that created the perfect solution for those late nights out when all you need is a little bit of comfort: the Hoodillow. Imagine a soft and cozy hoodie, with an added twist - a neck pillow sewn right into the hood.

Brian Holst, right, shares a handshake with Dr. Ping Lan, left, with his team's cash prize.

The team’s innovative design provides the comfort and support for your head and neck, making it ideal for long car rides, flights, or even just lounging around at home. It’s unique blueprint ensures that you can rest your head comfortably wherever you go, without concerns of neck pain or discomfort. Hartley and his team's submission to AIC sheds light on the importance of novel utility in the rise of new products through the creation of an exclusive accessory that fulfills the human need for ultimate relaxation.

One year later, Hartley became General Manager for Arctic Sun Virtual Reality in October 2019. Opened in March 2017, Arctic Sun VR became Alaska’s first Virtual Reality Arcade and premier gaming destination. The Alaskan owned operation offers three different types of gaming experiences: VR gaming stations, PC gaming stations and VR racing Sims.

Arctic Sun VR provides users the opportunity to immerse themselves in incredible virtual experiences using some of the most top-notch PC and VR hardware currently available on the market. Whilst indulging in the world of VR, Hartley acquired various skills essential for his interest in business, including human resources, strategic planning, process optimization, operations, and sales management.

Left: Eric Hartley attending an event.

While gainfully employed at Arctic Sun VR, Hartley started his own small-batch manufacturing business in his garage. He had the intent of scaling to a fully autonomous operation one day. While his business is still relatively small, it combines all of his favorite things: business, branding, designing, material science, and innovation. He spends most mornings and weekends running machines to combat the growing pains of not being able to supply enough product for his audience.

In September 2022, Hartley started a new position as Content Creator Program Coordinator at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Interior Alaska Campus. IAC’s Content Creation Occupational Endorsement offers students a chance to focus on establishing a firm online presence as a business.

It is ideal for individuals who want to become self-employed or for those who wish to excel in their careers with businesses wish to increase their virtual reach. As the coordinator, Hartley was responsible for ensuring the program thoroughly covered vital subjects, ranging from video storytelling to business technology support fundamentals.

Right: Eric Hartley posing out in the Alaska wilderness for a photo.

Hartley continues to build his career in his most recent position as Marketing and Events Manager for the Alaska Center of Innovation, Commercialization, and Entrepreneurship, known as Center ICE. He began his profession with Alaska Center ICE in June 2023. In a short interview, Eric Hartley answers a series of questions to further discuss his relationship with both AIC and Center ICE in more detail:

Q: Can you tell me about your idea, Hoodillow, and what inspired you and your team?
A: Hoodillow was actually my teammate James Little’s idea. It is a comfortable hoodie pillow, for those days when you need comfort more than anything – think of an airplane neck pillow but sewn into a hood. He joined the Hoodillow idea with James Little after he pitched it at Center ICE’s startup weekend and that's where we met the rest of our team members: Brian Holst, Levi Purdy, and Justin Lopez.
Q: When you think back to AIC, what is the first thing you remember?
A: I remember that our Center ICE startup weekend win got us expedited entry into the event. I was excited about the opportunity, especially after doing all of the stakeholder discovery that Center ICE teaches. I felt like we had a good handle on why we were making this product and who we wanted to bring it to.
Q: Was your team interested in progressing with the idea after the competition?
A: I think we all were. I occasionally talk to the team and I know they still believe in it. Brian keeps a prototype around for weary travelers and they always try to buy it off him after testing it on the couch.
Q: What were your biggest takeaways from competing in AIC? Do any of them tie in with your new position at Center ICE?
A: AIC was really about pitching your idea and understanding your business, just as much. We were still early in our development process, but I thought the experience and pressure of a pitch to essentially investors, was useful. I have taken a lot of those experiences with me in both my academic and professional career. That’s precisely what Center ICE tries to teach people with ideas – how to build and present a sustainable model to support it. From the Hoodillow, to clean energy, and educational tools, Center ICE is an extremely useful resource and one of the highlights of my college career.
Q: What advice would you give to future competitors?
A: Familiarize yourself with Center ICE. Their mission is to cultivate a culture of innovation here in Alaska. They can provide so much help in preparation on so many levels. Our team wouldn't have been able to match up to some of the other businesses there if we hadn't been participating in Center ICE programming.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?
A: I want to thank AIC and Center ICE. I’ve always wanted to start a business and through those experiences, I realized what I had been missing. I was placed in accelerators with ambitious researchers and business owners looking to make a difference in Alaska and the nation. It inspired me to actually pursue my own business. It was a catalyst that made me re-evaluate what building a business from the ground up looked like and I really think it gave me the tools to go and do just that. I’m proud to be able to help others in Alaska take that leap now.

It’s clear that Hartley has played a significant role in the Alaska Center ICE since he joined the team. His expertise in multiple areas has been instrumental in guiding ICE’s mission of fostering innovation and entrepreneurship in the community. The Hoodillow was a significant step towards becoming a seasoned innovator. It was undoubtedly a unique submission to AIC.

Through the development of such a product that aims to solve a common problem amongst the general public, Hartley and his team demonstrated their ability to identify gaps in the marketplace and develop innovative solutions. The success of the idea could be attributed to Hartley’s marketing skills. As he continues to develop and grow his brand, we can only expect to see more exciting products from this talented entrepreneur.

From this, Hartley continues to gain valuable tools and useful intel of what it takes to start a successful business. He is surrounded by like-minded individuals who were all looking to make a difference in Alaska and beyond. This shared passion and sense of community gives him the confidence and motivation to take the leap and pursue his own business. He is unbelievably proud to be able to help others take that same step forward. While understanding the challenges and obstacles that come with starting a business, he also knows that with the right tools and support, anyone can succeed.

His experience with Alaska Center ICE give him the knowledge and skills he needs to make his dream business a reality, and he's excited to share that knowledge with others. AIC lays the ultimate foundation by offering a support system allowing individuals, of all ages, an avenue to gain valuable experiences and meet a network of contacts; it drives the entrepreneurial spirit of our community.

Left: Eric Hartley hard at work designing the prototype for a project.