Fresno inventor Tommie Nellon didn’t have a lot of help turning his idea for a solar-powered fan and straw hat into a reality in 2006. But, the idea is becoming a big business for Tommie and his wife, Dr. Vernice Nellon, as they sell their cooling hats around the world.
The Nellons are featured on the CNBC series “Make Me a Millionaire Inventor” at 10 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 13.
The series, hosted by engineering experts Deanne Bell and George Zaidan, searches for the best inventions never made and helps bring them to market. The inventors are given the resources and help to take their products from concept to reality; they’ll create a prototype, test and perfect their inventions while preparing for the biggest pitch of their lives. For the Nellons that meant adapting their straw hat design to a hard hat.
“I was a solar contractor for many years and we always have had to wear a hard hat. Because we work in direct sunlight, it can get extremely hot,” Tommie Nellon says. “You can’t take the hard hat off because there are OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) guys all around and they will fine you.”
Vernice Nellon says that the straw hats with the fans were popular but contractors kept asking her when they were going to start producing a hard-hat version.
Through their participation with “Make Me a Millionaire Inventor,” there is now a better answer. The Nellons won’t talk about how much help they got with their Kool Breeze Solar Hard Hat. They say all of that is revealed in the episode.
Both say the most difficult part of being part of the CNBC series is not being allowed to talk about the show until just before the scheduled air date. They told family and friends they were on vacation instead of revealing they were away from Fresno working on the show.
A solar engineer, Tommie Nellon started Unlimited Energy in the mid-1980s with a part-time worker. He was working as a consultant on a solar project in Bakersfield when he saw an episode of the first season of “Make Me a Millionaire Inventor.”
“I submitted my idea for the invention about this time last year,” Tommie Nellon says. “After they got back in contact with me, it was a long process to get on the show. I actually liked the process because while they were vetting me I got to vet them. It all seemed like a good idea and we welcomed the help.”
Although they have had success with the straw hats, they could not use the work they had done before in the new product. Hard hats come with more restrictions, including how durable they have to be. The design of the hard hat must add the cooling system without reducing the ability to withstand a high level of impact.
Bell is the “Make Me a Millionaire Inventor” host who works with the Nellon. She’s an engineer, television host and the founder & CEO of Future Engineers. Before becoming a TV host and entrepreneur, Bell designed opto-mechanics for military aircraft sensors and worked as a senior application engineer for a CAD software start-up.
Tommie Nellon connected with Bell because of her engineering background. That made it easier for them to talk about what needed to be done to hone the hard-hat product.
The Nellows liked getting to see the production side of a TV show, from the amount of time it took to produce the episode to the amount of people who work on the show. A crew spent three days in Fresno with the Nellons before the couple traveled to Los Angeles for a week of filming.
Vernice Nellon says the crew made them feel very comfortable.
“They came in like friends who knew a lot about us. I guess that’s part of the vetting process,” Vernice Nellon says. “As far as the cameras being around, they were not that obvious.”
Tommie Nellon says they are glad they got to be part of the series. He recommends anyone who has an idea for a new invention to contact the show.
Brush with death
It started as an operation to fix the right knee that Erik Rosales damaged through years of playing baseball at the high school, college and pro levels. It ended up being two near-death experiences.
Four months ago, Rosales, a KMPH FOX26 (Channel 26.1) anchor and reporter, had surgery to resurface his knee with titanium. That surgery had to be repeated when he slipped and fell while in the shower.
“While I was recovering from that surgery, the knee got infected with salmonella poisoning. They aren’t sure how I got it but it went to the weakest part of my body,” Rosales says. “The knee got totally infected. That’s very rare except in Third World countries.”
Rosales went to physical therapy four weeks ago and after the session felt a pain in his knee. The doctors told him the bacteria had been dormant until the physical therapy opened up the area where it had been growing. By the end of the work day, Rosales could not walk and his temperature spiked at 103.5 that night.
During the surgery to remove the infection, his temperature hit 105 degrees.
“It was so bad the doctor told my wife to call my parents. The doctor didn’t know how it was going to go. He told me that he had to stop and work on me twice as they almost lost me,” Rosales says.
It took two surgeries to completely clear out the infection. And, Rosales will need another surgery on that right knee to replace the titanium hardware doctors had to remove because of the infection.
As for his brushes with death, he believes that God has more work for him to do.
Rosales isn’t able to put any weight on his knee, so he gets around with a walker or wheelchair. He’s not certain when he will be able to return to work, but he holds out hope it won’t be too long.
“I want to come back as quickly as I can. I miss work, the job. I miss helping people. I love telling stories,” Rosales says.
Rosales has worked in the Fresno TV market for more than 20 years, including stints at CBS47 and FOX26. He was the South Bay reporter for KGO-TV ABC 7 News in San Francisco.
If you would like to contact Rosales, he is on Facebook.
KMPH FOX26’s Liz Gonzalez became a mother on Sept. 28 when she gave birth to Eliana Grace. The Sanger High graduate, who has been with the Fox affiliate for 10 years, jokes that she works for Channel 26 and she was in labor for 26 hours.
The baby, who weighed 7 pounds, 6 ounces, was a week late.
“They were saying at work that her being late makes up for every time I was late for work,” Gonzalez says.
As to whether it was tougher to be at work in the final weeks of her pregnancy or the actual birthing process, Gonzalez says it was the later. She praises her bosses for making her final weeks easier by giving her less-strenuous assignments.
At this point, Gonzalez plans on returning to work in January. Until then, she will be enjoying every moment with her daughter.
Filling in for Gonzalez are Rich Rodriguez and Ashley Ritchie.