Lakeland University Blog

Lakeland entrepreneur’s startup attracting attention

Lakeland entrepreneur’s startup attracting attention


Lakeland entrepreneur’s startup attracting attention

Fast forward to 2028 and Lakeland University graduate and talented entrepreneur Michaela Heling is hanging out in Los Angeles at the summer Olympics with the U.S. softball team as the players put on the cleats she has created.

The creator and owner of Protean Footwear is on her way to making it happen.

Seven months removed from an eye-opening second-place finish at a startup pitch competition in Appleton, Wis., Heling, currently a sophomore business administration major at Lakeland, finished second at the Accelerate Sheboygan County 2023 Business Challenge in November.

It’s the latest in what’s been a series of wins as the Sheboygan, Wis., native works to bring her creative solution to athletic footwear to the marketplace.

Protean Footwear is a softball/baseball shoe with interchangeable metal, molded and turf soles. Heling’s startup, which is already patent pending, saves space and weight in equipment bags and ensures that athletes are prepared for any kind of turf or weather. It also saves money, she said, since her cleats will be less expensive than purchasing three pairs of shoes.

The product has been turning heads in the sports world.

This past July, Heling, herself a longtime softball player, received an unsolicited message from Rachel Garcia, who led the UCLA Bruins to the 2019 Women's College World Series championship, where she was named the Most Outstanding Player. Currently a player for Athletes Unlimited, Garcia was a member of the 2020 Olympic Silver Medalist U.S. softball team and has competed on U.S. teams in numerous other games.

“She reached out on Instagram with feedback on the prototype and suggestions to fill in the gaps that others missed,” Heling said. “I was very surprised. I never expect to see a message from a professional athlete saying I love your idea.”

Heling met Garcia in person in Chicago at a softball tournament, and the two have stayed in touch about future collaborations, including the possibility of a softball clinic in this area.

Last September, Heling spoke to equipment managers with the Milwaukee Brewers, Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies to learn more about their challenges with cleats.

“The equipment managers provided feedback on what materials they notice withstand the best, and what different position players typically look for in a pair of cleats,” Heling said. “Each player has varying needs for cleats, so it is important to make sure there is a cleat available that fits the needs of each player. I also learned about market availability.”

Heling’s story is an example of the entrepreneurial opportunities available to Lakeland students.

Protean Footwear was born last fall in the Intro to Business course taught by Stephanie Hoskins, Lakeland’s Herbert Kohler & Frank Jacobson Chair of Business & Entrepreneurship and herself an accomplished entrepreneur. Hoskins invited Heling to continue work on the product in the spring in PRO 450, an internship course for entrepreneurial students to work directly with Hoskins to develop a product idea and bring it to market.

Heling launched her product website in January and in the spring launched social media pages on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn. She has a manufacturer that plans to start producing the shoes in early 2024.

Heling spends an average of 10-15 hours per week working on the business. She hopes to expand to other sports once a foothold in baseball and softball is established. She continues to meet regularly with Hoskins to review the progress she’s making.

“I’ve seen a lot more people reach out and say there is a need,” Heling said. “It’s showing that is a need and other companies haven’t met it, especially in comfortability and the versatility of all three soles in one.

“I like how I get to pursue one of the things I did in high school and combine my interests to address the problem. It’s been cool to build it so people don’t have same issues that I did and fill the gaps the industry has been missing.”

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