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Gannon grant boosts Erie self-defense business


Munio self-defense owners Michele Vorberger, 46, and Phil Ventrello, 50, demonstrate the hand-held hard plastic device in their Erie office on March 19. GREG WOHLFORD/ERIE TIMES-NEWS

It's an unlikely business, built on what looks like a designer keychain by owners with years of experience in martial arts and marketing. 

But a five-member panel of judges came away impressed by an idea hatched by Phil Ventrello and Michele Vorberger, the owners of Munio Self Defense. Their business was chosen from among 11 entrants as the winner of the Gannon University's Technology Accelerator Award.

Winners receive $10,000, free rent for six months in Gannon's Erie Technology Incubator, along with strategic coaching and mentoring from the incubator staff and the services of the Erie law firm of McDonald, Illig, Jones & Briton LLP.

It's an important boost at the right time, said Vorberger, whose company was already a tenant of the incubator. "We are so truly grateful for this accelerator program that Gannon has put together. They have been so instrumental in our progress and our marketing," she said.

More than a keychain

To the untrained eye, their product looks like nothing more than a plastic keychain that can be customized with a long list of symbols and designs.

But Ventrello, a longtime martial arts instructor, said the keychain, which fits in the palm of the owner's hand, draws on the tradition of martial arts weaponry to create a device that can repel an attacker.

Made of lightweight impact-resistant plastic, the keychain is made to strike an attacker with its pointed end.

"It's a way to deliver a lot of pain very easily," Ventrello said. "It's meant to distract an attacker enough to give you a chance to get away."

Vorberger, who has worked in marketing for a number of years, said the Munio -- the name was taken from a Latin word meaning to protect -- is designed for people who might not be comfortable carrying pepper spray or something that looks more obviously like a weapon.

"It fits in your hand. You are ready to use it immediately," she said. "You use the point to strike at your attacker and your keys to whip at them. If you can hammer a nail and swat a fly, you can use it."

Top prize
Jeff Parnell, executive director of the incubator, said the panel of judges was impressed by the companies vying for the top prize. 

 "We had a nice cross section of companies, but what seemed to resonate with them was they felt this group was ready. They had already made some level of impact."

Winning the Gannon Accelerator should help push them forward, he said.

Vorberger said that late last week the company reached an agreement with Port Erie Plastics in Erie to produce the keychain using a new process that will apply the decorative covering.  When it comes to production, "This solves all of our problems," Ventrello said.

Besides, she added, "We wanted to keep the jobs local."

The company expects to focus now in its marketing efforts. Efforts to market the device received a substantial boost when the UPMC Hamot Aid Society agreed to partner with Munio Self Defense to provide self-defense workshops for all interested UPMC employees.

The one-hour workshop includes instruction and a free Munio, valued at $12.50, for those who participate.
The company, which sells its products online and through martial arts outlets, has sold about 5,000 of its keychains.
The owners look forward to much bigger things, including the possibility of marketing their product on television and selling it in major national retailers.
Parnell said he thinks the Accelerator prize could help them reach that goal.
"It equips the entrepreneurs with a great number of tools, including an understanding of the financial requirements," he said "We also talk a great deal about how to be coached and mentored. This is a huge part of it. You are not a solo act."
JIM MARTIN can be reached at 870-1668 or by e-mail. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ETNmartin.