Meet Dental Student Ethan Erwin: Inventor, Entrepreneur, Musician

Dentistry student Ethan Erwin pursues entrepreneurship and music in addition to a demanding class schedule.

By Jennifer Fuentes, Texas A&M University College of Dentistry

There’s something interesting that happens when Ethan Erwin encounters a problem. He pores over the situation, picking apart every detail piece by piece. Invariably, the answer he comes up with is all at once practical yet out-of-the-box; heck, even patent-worthy.

Like the time his sophomore year of high school when the idea for the short-bow first entered his mind.

“I was riding down the road one day, and I was thinking about special effects for electronic instruments such as a keytar,” says Erwin, a classically trained violinist. His sister, Susan Erwin, a singer and international performing artist, had one such instrument — a small electronic keyboard held like a guitar — and he wondered about leveraging its special effects capabilities.

“I was thinking about sustaining tone to get a very stringed instrument sound out of a keytar,” Erwin says. “I was like, ‘Well, why can’t people do that with a fiddle, have a small bow in their hand?’”

And the short-bow — essentially a violin bow less than 12 inches in length — was born.

He started the patent process that very year.

“I had the idea, and I made an atrocious prototype,” Erwin recalls. “But I saw the potential, talked to some musicians, and I went and found a patent attorney, submitted a patent application, and in a very unusual circumstance, I got the patent accepted without having to make any revisions.”

The reason: There was no prior art. No concept even remotely similar existed.

Ethan Erwin with his patented short-bow.

So 10 years, one $11,000 Arkansas Governor’s Cup business plan award and several strategic decisions later — including a face-to-face meeting with country music icon Charlie Daniels — the short-bow is slowly infiltrating the highly traditional world of fiddle and violin. Artists specializing in other instruments have even begun to test the waters.

After winning the collegiate business competition his senior year at the University of Central Arkansas, Erwin realized he had a choice to make.

“At that point, I thought, ‘I could take the money and put it in the bank, and I’m sure I would be able to use that in dental school, or I could do something crazy here, and I could start a business.’ So that’s what I did.”

He invested the bulk of his winnings in two 3-D printers, spending much of his entire senior year of college learning how to write the CAD — computer-aided design — files to get the short-bow designs perfect. His sister, who handles marketing and sales, now creates the bows and manages the orders when she’s not on tour.

The short-bow isn’t the only thing produced from the printers. He’s also sold more than 100 customized wooden duck calls through his other venture, Southbound Down, dedicated to waterfowl sports. On more than one occasion, just for fun, Erwin has created drink koozies with the printer, even fabricated a ping-pong paddle to use in the student lounge when sparring against classmates.

He’s already thinking ahead to private practice.

“I think I paid it forward when I learned how to write CAD files and understand the types of 3-D printers. It’s very realistic that one day I will be able to make my own surgical guides for implants,” he says. “Being able to make those in house would lower the cost for the patient.”

This salesman has no buyer’s remorse about his decision to set his sights on Texas A&M College of Dentistry.

“It’s been just as thorough, just as solid of a program as I had expected, even exceeding my expectations in a lot of ways,” Erwin says. “I enjoy the thoroughness of it. It’s a great school. End of the story.”

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This story by Jennifer Fuentes originally appeared in Dentistry Insider.


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