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‘Shark Tank’ Loved Him. Two Years Later, This 34-Year Old Founder Faces Terminal Cancer–and How to Make a $4 Million Startup Outlive Him

After learning he had pancreatic cancer, Ryan Frayne faced a difficult task: Creating a plan for a company that might outlive him.

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BY Emily Canal - 06 Jul 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

It's not often that a startup piques the interest of every investor on Shark Tank. But Ryan Frayne's did just that.

In an episode that was originally taped in June 2015, his company Windcatcher--which makes fast-inflating camping mattresses--had Mark Cuban, Kevin O'Leary, Robert Herjavec, Lori Greiner and Chris Sacca shouting over one another, clamoring for the chance to invest.

Frayne stood motionless in front of the sharks, wearing a wide, toothy grin as they repeatedly interrupted each other's pitches to offer a better deal. He stayed calm, listened intently to every pitch and kept track of the particulars by scribbling notes on his hand. He rubbed the back of his pen over his goatee and smoothed the edges of his mustache with his fingers while mulling the details.Finally Greiner announced she was changing her previous offer--and unceremoniously dropping Sacca as a partner--and told Frayne she would give him $200,000 for 5 percent of his company and, as a sweetener, she'd fund his purchase orders.

Frayne glanced at the notes on his hand, smiled and accepted. Greiner rose from her seat and hugged Frayne, calling him a "fellow inventor" as she wrapped her arms around him. Frayne, who insisted on a low equity deal so he'd keep control of his company, only dreamed that such an outcome was possible. "You hope something like that happens," he says now, "but I didn't actually expect it to materialize."

But the joy quickly faded. Within weeks, Frayne learned that Cascade Designs, a Seattle-based company that specializes in outdoor equipment, made a remarkably similar product to Windcatcher's. An ensuing legal battle nullified his deal with Greiner--leaving Frayne without funding or a mentor. But even that paled to what came next: he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic and liver cancer.

Frayne, then 32, suddenly faced a vastly different challenge: creating a plan for a company that may outlive him. "At the time, I was angry with the world," Frayne says. "It felt like the worst possible scenario I could have presented myself after Shark Tank is exactly what was unfolding."'

"A bug for inventing"

Frayne, now 34, is a slight man with a big grin. When chemotherapy doesn't leave him bald, his handsome face is framed by dark, wavy hair. When he speaks, his cups his hands in front of his body but never closes them, like he's trying to capture his ideas between his palms. But don't mistake Frayne's build or cheery demeanor for fragility; he's stoic when talking about his life and hardships. He'll matter-of-factly discuss the lawsuit, how he regrets certain legal actions that he took and even the particulars of his symptoms. (Though once, when asked how his treatment was progressing, he broke down.)

Ryan Frayne inflating his AirPad2.

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Frayne's family Shawn Frayne (left), Jane Frayne, Christina Frayne, Lori Chun and Ryan Frayne.

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Frayne grew up in Tampa, Florida and graduated with a marketing degree in 2008 from the University of South Florida. He struggled to find work in that recessionary time, and channeled his energies into inventions. One of his favorites was a device that connects a fishing hook or bait to a line without tying a knot.

"It wasn't successful," Frayne says, "but it definitely gave me a bug for inventing." The experience also taught him how to navigate licensing deals, write and file his own patents. He realized he wanted to start his own company, and "almost arbitrarily" chose to move to Portland, Oregon, where he worked odd jobs until he landed at a digital marketing agency run by his friend Zeke Camusio.

On a family trip to Hawaii in December 2011, Frayne watched as his brother struggled to inflate a floating toy on the beach. As he huffed and puffed and made scant progress, a lightbulb suddenly blazed for Frayne. The valve he ultimately invented, which underpins Windcatcher's product, funnels nearby air around a user's breath into the device, which amplifies the airflow entering by ten- or fifteen-fold. To develop it, Frayne spent the next year making dozens of mock Windcatchers from plastic garbage bags. He couldn't afford to buy any other supplies.

He perfected the design and launched the company in 2013 with co-founders Camusio and Rob Stam (who are no longer with Windcatcher but retain small stakes). Strapped for funds, Frayne and his co-founders turned to Kickstarter. They wanted to raise $50,000 in 30 days, but after a week they only had $5,000 from friends and family--leaving Frayne growing increasingly nervous. He had already quit his job, and none of the blogs he'd pitched the campaign to seemed to care. But a Kickstarter meet-up was scheduled in Portland on a Monday, so Frayne attended, hoping it would give his campaign a boost.

"I went to sleep on Monday terrified that nothing was going to work out," said Frayne, who knew that he and his co-founders faced serious trouble if nothing changed. On Tuesday, he said, he woke to the sound of his phone "going ballistic."

Kickstarter had named Windcatcher one of its staff picks, and the tech blog New Atlas had written about it. Overnight, Windcatcher had tripled its goal and banked nearly $150,000.

"Once that Kickstarter happened," Frayne said, "I knew that that would be my career." In 2014, Windcatcher took in $145,000 in revenue. The following year, it took in $213,000.

A little help from his friends

After Frayne's triumphant Shark Tank appearance, he flew to China to make sure his manufacturer was ready for all the attention - frequently companies receive an avalanche of interest after an episode airs. (At the time of taping, Windcatcher had a $4 million valuation; Frayne says he hasn't revisited that figure since 2015.)

While abroad, Frayne began suffering from stomach maladies. They were new, and they worried him. He also began receiving emails from friends and industry insiders congratulating him on his licensing deal with Cascade Designs, and that related Cascade products were showcased at trade shows. He had a relationship with the company, but no deals for such products had been struck. Frayne, puzzled, went home to see what was up with Cascade and to seek legal help--and to find out what was wrong with his health.

One day after he was back in the U.S., just 30 minutes before he was supposed to meet a lawyer, his doctor called and told Frayne he needed to come in immediately. He had bad news and couldn't tell him over the phone.

"I waded through this 30-minute meeting with this lawyer, knowing that maybe none of this stuff would matter ," Frayne says. Afterward, he walked straight to the doctor's office. He was told he had cancer. The prognosis: terminal.

The diagnosis changed how he'd approach Cascade. "I didn't know how much time I had," Frayne says, "and the last thing I wanted to do was screw around with litigation." He took the advice of one lawyer who suggested he present a cease and desist letter to Cascade at the Outdoor Retailer trade show in August 2015. He did--and also displayed flyers that warned customers of knock-offs sold by a large company at the same trade show.

Frayne undergoes chemotherapy.

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Frayne didn't name Cascade, but a spokesperson for Cascade tells Inc. the notice "strongly implied Cascade Designs." The spokesperson adds that to know if "our product infringed [Frayne's] technology, Mr. Frayne would have needed to dissect our product and inspect the technology Cascade Designs employed for inflation before or during the tradeshow, which we are all but certain did not occur."

In September 2015, Cascade filed a complaint against Windcatcher for unfair competition and false advertising, among other claims. Frayne countersued for breach of the nondisclosure agreement and trade dress infringement--patents for his products were still pending.

While he battled the lawsuit, Frayne faced the challenge of running his company while undergoing treatment. The same month that Cascade filed its lawsuit, Frayne moved from Portland to Brooklyn, N.Y. where he began chemotherapy.

How could he keep the company going?

Frayne's childhood friend Oren Hanson, who works as a firefighter and owns a pool cleaning company in Tampa, Florida, offered to help with day-to-day operations. "If none of that ever happened," Hanson says, referring to the lawsuit and Frayne's diagnosis, "you'd probably see Windcatcher on every store shelf out there right now."

Hanson became the chief operating officer, which allows Frayne to focus on the creative side. "I'm going to keep going as long as I can with him and do this as long as he'll have me do it," Hanson says. "It's been a privilege and an honor."

Frayne's mother, Lori Chun, helps with bookkeeping. His father, Dennis Frayne, who owns a delivery company, transports Windcatcher products. Frayne's girlfriend Geneve Nguyen once worked at Windcatcher, but now cares for Frayne after his treatments.

"The way that a chemotherapy schedule works," Frayne says, "you get a week where you're really sick and you have a week off and then you have another week where you're really sick. So, having a normal job isn't really feasible for myself--and because she takes care of me, for her."

Meanwhile, Frayne's applications for accelerated patent approval (due to his medical condition) were approved. The litigation dragged into 2016 and ended in a settlement. Both parties say the terms are confidential, but Frayne confirmed that it included a non-exclusive license for Cascade Designs.

A founder's legacy

When Frayne launched Windcatcher, he wanted the business to focus on licensing its technology. But Frayne---ever the inventor--ended up running Windcatcher as a company that only manufactured its products. Balancing treatment and thinking about his future led him to rethink that approach, and return to his initial idea.

Girlfriend Geneve Nguyen and Ryan Frayne at the Empire State Building.

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Part of that stems from a simple--if wrenching--calculation that Frayne was forced to make. "It's much easier, if it's a licensing-based company, for someone to take it over," he says. "They don't really need me to be involved." In the event he dies, Frayne wants any Windcatcher sales to benefit Nguyen and Hanson.

Frayne hasn't stopped inventing and continues to tinker with new fast-inflating products. He hopes to launch these creations under a new company, but prefers to keep the details secret for now. He also knows his is a different timeline.

Back in 2015, as he waited for the doctor to deliver the diagnosis, he searched WebMD for answers. "No doctors have really expressed a timeframe, they just talk about it in terms of 'what can we do to keep you alive as long as possible,'" Frayne says. "From stats I've found online that I know that my time is not significant, because pancreatic cancer is--I wouldn't say more deadly. It's just, if you just look at the stats, they are just not great."

He plans to show his recent work to Greiner, who encouraged him to get in touch once the lawsuit was resolved, Frayne said. ABC did not address Inc's inquiries about Shark Tank's policy for making deals with companies involved in litigation; or relay any answers from Greiner in response to Inc's questions.

"If I am going to pass away, at least I can leave something behind," Frayne says, his voice cracking, atypically, in a rare moment of vulnerability. "Maybe a cool invention that many people can use for years to come."

"I'd be happy knowing that."