Red Wing wakeboarder hopes incubator will pull him to success

Kyle Mehrkens grew up on Lake Pepin near Red Wing, so it was only natural that he’d invent a contraption that makes it easier to be on the water. The 28-year-old is building the third generation of a specialized electric winch that can pull a waterskier or wakeboarder for 25 seconds toward shore without a boat or even another person around.

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MPR News photo/Alex Kolyer

“I set out to change the way you participate in wakeboarding and waterskiing,” said Mehrkens, noting that the latter was invented on Lake Pepin. His winch hasn’t hit the market yet, though he’s planning demonstrations at a couple of upcoming water expos and hopes to “pull” a big competition this summer. “If I pull that it will be game over because everyone will know about it.”

Mehrkens, who has a physics degree from Hamline University, began development of his self-operated winch with his high school shop teacher and now has filed for a patent. He credits an entrepreneurial uncle for his drive, friends and family for the practical support that’s gotten him this far and Red Wing’s virtual business incubator for pushing him to the next level.

The incubator, which started last year in part with a grant from the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, has lent advice and mentorship and also $4,000 in the form of a microloan. “Throughout the whole process, they’ve been willing to work with me and push me and support me,” said Mehrkens. “It’s been very inspirational.”

One of the incubator’s goals is to create opportunities for younger people in Red Wing, said John Becker, a fine print shop owner who heads a nonprofit called Red Wing Downtown Mainstreet, which championed the effort. “We’re not growing rapidly but we are getting older very rapidly,” he said. “That means the whole property tax burden shifts to a fixed income demographic. It’s hard to grow a community like that.”

“Kyle is the poster child for what we want to do,” Becker said. “He’s young and ambitious and aggressive.” If Red Wing can burnish its credentials as a sports Mecca, perhaps more young people will want to live there. “There is no point in trying to fill a pipeline that’s draining when the kids aren’t coming back,” said Becker. “They need reasons to stay.”

The way it sounds, Mehrkens intends to do just that. “This is a good spot to start a business,” he said. “The bonus here is how easy it is to talk to people. You can get a lot of advice. Red Wing has so much to offer to everyone of every age. My age group is probably the least served, but I want to give back to this community in any way I can.”