Katherina Wilkins watched her father struggle to keep the ladder steady at Christmas time, precariously balancing it against a tree outside as he attempted to hang lights.

That image popped into her head when it came time for her E-Squared team to come up with a product to market - hence the Step Up Accessories Tree Hugger was born.

A ladder attachment that secures to trees and other round objects to increase ladder safety, the Tree Hugger team impressed judges with their fully functioning prototype.

The team won a $20,000 prize through Career Partners, which has hosted the E-Squared project for 11 years.

“This is very great, the fact we got to work together with this whole entire project was very helpful,” junior Osmond R-Melem said. “The experience was a life changing one.”

Wilkins said that having a functional prototype was important to their victory.

“I think it’s awesome our product was successful,” Wilkins said. “That the (judges) saw a potential that it could make a difference in the world.”

The team, also including sophomores Preston Yoder and Saif Mohsin,  worked with Ray’s Automotive and Ward’s Metal Fabricators to create the prototype that slipped over a ladder.

“It was more of the connections through our coaches, they were able to set up these connections and it was up to us to keep them,” R-Melem said. “We thank all the businesses that contributed to our project.”

The team also proposed a model for the home - called a home hugger - to the team of seven judges.

The team secured the $20,000 scholarship money offered through E-Squared by asking the Shark Tank-like investors for $125,000 investment.

The team said they expected to sell the product for a $35 retail at retailers like Lowe’s and Home Depot.

Judge Ed Dalyrymple asked why the cost of producing the Tree Hugger never changed over five years - factoring in inflation.

The team answered that by using the same manufacturer they hoped to lock in cost.

Judge Norm Laudermilch asked if they had thought about adding a hinge to the product, which the team said they had already thought of.

Sophomore Preston Yoder said the team did hours of research and design to get it just right.

“We worked really well as a team, sometimes we fell apart but we always worked through it,” Yoder said.

Sophomore Saif Mohsin praised coaches George Dasher and E-Squared Alumni Katelyn Lacy for their assistance.

“They helped a lot, they showed us a lot about design,” Mohsin said.

This is the second year in a row Dasher has coached the winning team, last year helping guide Safe and Secure to the scholarship victory.

“I think what this shows us is how important a product is,” Dasher said. “What is good about this team is they all embraced this product. They were all excited about it, so they were all eager to work their pieces.”

Five other teams were competing for the prize:

  • Amacing Jewelry designed a necklace with pepper spray disguised as a pendant.

  • Mountain Run Floor Cleaning presented themselves as Culpeper’s only full-service floor cleaners.

  • Reel O2 presented a retractable oxygen tubing reel that addressed the hazard of tripping and falling on excess oxygen tubing.

  • VidaTape was a kinesiology tape that added an all-natural formula to help warm up muscles.

  • Wee Read presented a literacy app to teach children how to speak and read English using an advanced three stage process.

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