Notre Dame alum creates product to convert SUVs into campers, serve homeless people
Maria Luisa Paul | Tuesday, March 23, 2021
As COVID-19 began wreaking havoc on the U.S. a year ago, daily life saw a rise in different challenges and experiences. For many, the pandemic brought financial complications and increased mental health issues.
In the midst of a pandemic that is also hurting businesses, Frank P. Quinn, a former administrative assistant at the IDEA Center’s Innovation Lab and Notre Dame alumnus (‘02), found an opportunity to merge his three passions — camping, innovation and giving back — into a startup company.
A self-declared fan of the outdoors, Quinn’s aha moment came with what he deemed “the big fan list,” or a tally of likes and dislikes that he created by asking himself two main questions: “What am I big fan of?“ and “What kind of product would naturally and organically come from me and who I am — my experiences, my inclinations and what I enjoy?” he said.
The outdoors, partying responsibly and safety — an important goal he credits his experience of being a father for — were at the top of his list. Meanwhile, costs associated with a vehicle’s maintenance and storage, setting up tents and sleeping on air mattresses figured among Quinn’s dislikes. The result was Road House, a platform storage-bed that converts sport utility vehicles (SUVs) into campers.
“There’s a new way for a safe, social-distance hang that has as much to do with enjoying all the nature our beautiful Midwest has to offer as it is to promote positive mental health by way of the inherent exercise, fresh air and vitamin D associated with getting outdoors,” Quinn said.
Made from 1/2-inch UV-coated plywood on a KERN category 4 laser, the Road House platform’s dimensions are 67 by 7 by 36 inches, and it weighs 64 pounds. Quinn said the product’s proportions are ideal for mid-sized SUVs — such as the Subaru Forester, Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV-4 — but will fit inside larger vehicles as well.
Quinn said he envisioned mobility and versatility as the “paramount” aspects of his invention. Thus, Road House platforms come with six different storage access points and an attached bottle opener. They also include a plexiglass sheet that can easily be washed if they are used as tables during social gatherings.
“Road House can also easily become a surface to share an outdoor meal or play a game of pong,” he said. “We want to ensure customers have a safe way to comfortably sleep, especially when and where getting behind the wheel isn’t a good idea — secured for the night in your vehicle with your own pillows and blankets.”
Quinn offers two different prices that include the product’s assembling and free area delivery: $475 for a Road House platform and $600 for one including a gel memory foam hybrid mattress. The Notre Dame alum said that 3% of the proceeds would be donated to the City of South Bend’s homeless missions.
It takes a village
Despite his love of adventures, Quinn said camping came with a “crippling” disadvantage: sleepless nights in uncomfortable tents or air mattresses.
“I’m someone who really loves a good night’s sleep,” Quinn said. “I would need a day to recover from going camping just because it wasn’t comfortable enough.”
Armed with the objective to maximize comfort, Quinn took advantage at the resources available at the IDEA Center to turn his vision into a reality. He said Road House was the end product of extensive teamwork and cooperation.
“There’s a lot of collaboration and synergy happening there just by exposure, the wonderful creative environment and just people wanting to have fun and use their skills to help each other,” he said.
First, Quinn shared his idea with an industrial designer, who helped create a prototype with the center’s equipment. Then, Shreejan Shrestha — an industrial designer at the Innovation Lab and Industrial Design and teaching scholar for the Department of Art, Art History and Design — created a logo that encapsulated the project’s idea. Finally, Brandon Welsch, an Innovation Lab graphics lab technician, agreed to develop creative content for Road House as a way to launch his own production company, Gas Ditch Productions.
For Quinn, Notre Dame’s IDEA Center is the ideal starting point for any aspiring entrepreneur in the Notre Dame community.
“If you have an idea, you walk in there, it’s the safest place that you can fail,” he said. “Because all there is is learning from it.”
The Road House founder said students should jump at the opportunities this center offers regardless of their major.
“I was an English major and now I have a side business just because I was curious and motivated,” he said. “We all have this wonderful network — and Notre Dame should know about this. No matter what you’re building, whatever your major is, you could go and have a side business. Multiple sources of income are ideal, especially in this day and age.”
Giving back to the community
Even before launching Road House in November 2020, Quinn said he had a close connection with South Bend’s homeless population. As a University student, he was part of the Old College Program for men discerning a vocation to priesthood in the Congregation of Holy Cross, and thus had formed close ties with the mission to serve the poor.
Now a husband and father to a 5-year-old girl, the close ties he formed with Holy Cross’s mission to serve the most vulnerable motivated Quinn to create a business that would also give back to the community.
“There was always going to be some type of giving back and service at the heart of a product, because that’s what makes it truly fulfilling,” Quinn said.
As of now, Quinn’s startup is contributing 3% of its proceeds to local homeless missions, which would benefit the increased homeless population in the area.
According to the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority’s data, there are currently 516 homeless people in St. Joseph County, which represents a 25% increase from the 413 counted in the 2019 report — the third largest increase among the categorized 17 regions.
In the future, Quinn said he is aiming to provide a platform bed-storage to a person living inside their vehicle for every fifty Road House products he sells, especially considering the frigid weather homeless people must endure without shelter during the colder months.
“There is, of course, cold weather amnesty. Many different buildings offer shelter the during the coldest months where homeless don’t have to live inside a vehicle or under bridges,” Quinn explained. “But you have to be sober to get a bed at the South Bend Center for the Homeless.”