From School Science Fair…To Store Shelves

By Neal St. Anthony
Star Tribune (Minneapolis).

Ayla Hutchinson, 16, may be the youngest and farthest-traveling entrepreneur to showcase at the Minnesota State Fair this year.

Hutchinson, who lives with her family in a small city in New Zealand, conceived of a safer approach to splitting kindling in 2012 after she saw her mom, Claire, slice her finger with a hatchet. Her dad, Vaughn, an engineer, who admits that he never would have thought of what has become the “Kindling Cracker,” built a prototype in his workshop.

Ayla’s idea, originally invented for a school science fair, ended up winning innovation awards in New Zealand. It grew into a Hutchinson family-owned business that manufactures in New Zealand. The Hutchinsons granted U.S. distribution rights to Burnsville-based Northern Tool & Equipment.

Ryan Kotula, Northern Tool’s owner, became intrigued with the simplicity and safety of the product and contacted Vaughn Hutchinson. Kotula traveled to New Zealand last winter to explore a North American partnership.

“There were larger companies after them, but we are a family business … started in 1981 in a garage, and we’re still a family business,” Kotula said.

The families liked each other and struck a deal. And that included a visit to Northern Tool and the State Fair by Ayla, Vaughn and Ayla’s sister, Jasmine, 14, to demonstrate the product at the Northern Tool exhibit.

The Kindling Cracker, which retails for $99, features an upturned ax blade, extended and secured by a steel pipe from a base, enclosed by a steel safety ring. A piece of wood is placed on the ax blade and is split by striking with a mallet or another piece of wood.

Ayla also is something of a teen-entrepreneur idol in her country. She has spoken to thousands of schoolchildren about academics and imagination. And she delighted a steady stream of visitors with her expert demonstration and easy way at the fair.

“It’s pretty cool,” she said of her notoriety. “I just go along with it.”

This is not exactly a get-rich scheme yet for the working-class Hutchinson family.

Vaughn was milking cows and cutting firewood on top of his struggling small business. He shuttered it last year to focus on the Kindling Cracker. The family had to finance the costs of patents and trademarks in partnership with a New Zealand manufacturer.

As sales have grown and the family gets royalties, the initial proceeds go to a college scholarship fund for Ayla and Jasmine. They also went on a modest shopping spree at the Mall of America to buy tennis shoes during a break from the fair.

Ayla seems as interested in helping people as she is in big bucks. She has given away dozens of the devices in New Zealand to indigent elderly and people with disabilities who find it easy to use. In fact, one of her favorite memories is driving about five hours from home with her dad this year to deliver a Kindling Cracker to an elderly widow who heats her home with wood.

“I had heard she needed one,” said Ayla, who said the woman was stunned when Ayla arrived at her door. “We sorted out a place for it to sit. She served tea and cookies. And now she doesn’t have to beg the neighbors to cut kindling. It was fun. ”

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