Startup offers a modular camper

LOVELAND – Larry Drake got into the camper business because he grew tired of pitching tents.

“I just don’t do tent camping anymore,” he said. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to have a camper on my utility trailer?’”

But Drake couldn’t find a camper that would suit his Chevy HHR, a station wagon with a towing capacity of just 1,000 pounds.

So, six months after he retired from building acrobatic sport planes, Drake began designing a modular camper, one that he sells for $5,000 to $8,000, depending on size.

Three-and-a-half years later, YouTube videos featuring the camper from Drake’s startup, Teal International Corp., have drawn nearly 300,000 views.

Drake recently received a call from producers of ABC’s “Shark Tank,” the television show featuring investors interrogating entrepreneurs who pitch them their products. Some people might jump at the chance for that kind of exposure, but “I didn’t want to do it,” the soft-spoken Drake says.

Still, “that’s the kind of interest I’ve had from all over the world,” he said.

Drake, the CEO of Teal, moved to Loveland 15 years ago. He once owned a flight school in Napa Valley, Calif., and has done daring feats in air shows, though he sold his plane to finance his latest venture.

The campers are 8.5 feet long, 6 feet wide and just over 6 feet tall. They fit on several sizes of utility trailers as well as a pickup bed and weigh from 450 to 500 pounds, hence its name, the Teal Tail Feather Camper.

The company believes its camper’s lighter weight will appeal to the masses of Northern Coloradans who drive SUVs and light-duty pickups with limited towing capacity.

“Not everybody’s got a crew-cab, three-quarter ton pickup,” said Aron Kriss, Teal International’s production manager. “It just opens the door for a lot more people.”

So might the idea that the camper can be put together by one person in 60 minutes by piecing together panels made of polyethylene plastic filled with insulation. Only a Phillips screwdriver is purportedly needed for the job.

A safety strap around the perimeter secures the camper, which Drake says has kept out rain and snow during his tests. The camper has tie-down rings around the inside and outside of the camper.

“It’s been through harsh winters, it’s been through 100-plus-degree weather,” he said.

Although spartan in design, a few of the creature comforts of a camper can be found in Drake’s camper.

Inside, the camper features a sink with a drain and a bottle to pump water to the faucet. The cabinets look more like a duffel bag – they open with zippers – though they have shelves and panels to support storage of belongings.

Because it’s so light compared to a conventional camper, drivers save on gasoline and can maneuver their vehicles on Colorado’s rougher backcountry roads, Drake said.

Also, the camper has plastic windows and doors that lock, so equipment like bicycles and motorcycles can be stored inside. In the rear of the camper are benches that can be converted to a table and a bed. Two halogen lights are embedded in the ceiling.

When taken apart, the camper’s parts occupy a space of 4 feet by 5 feet.

All of this is why Drake can say there’s no other camper on the market quite like his.

Drake plans to have at least 25 units in his inventory this year, and more, he hopes, in the future. The plastic parts are molded in the Denver area, and, for the moment, the assembly takes place in Drake’s Loveland garage.

While Drake claims not to be interested in “Shark Tank,” investors are interested in him.

Ryan Speir, former COO of the Rocky Mountain Innosphere in Fort Collins, has invested in the company and taken on the role of chief operating officer.

Speir said he was drawn by the design’s versatility – Teal International also sells 8-foot-by-8-foot shelters.

Those aren’t designed to fit on a utility trailer, but Speir wants to sell them to people like victims of Hurricane Sandy, who still lack shelter months after the storm struck the Northeast.

Or, they could be used as an ice-fishing shelter as well as towed by a snowmobile or ATV during skiing or hunting trips. They could also be used to convert a pontoon boat into a houseboat.

“There’s just all kinds of ways it can be used,” Drake said. “It just started out as a camper.”

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