Spine injury inspires Mark Van den Avont to create better sports mats

Breaking two vertebrae in his spine as a high school gymnast turned out to be a big break for University of Illinois sophomore Mark Van den Avont.Mark Van den Avont

Van den Avont, an Arlington Heights native, broke the T11 and T12 vertebrae during a backflip dismount while a senior at Hersey High School. The injury and crash led Van den Avont, who is fully healthy now, to create his company HexNest. HexNest is creating mats that are safer and more cost-effective than the one he fell on as a 12th-grader.

Van den Avont is developing his first HexNest mat at the iVenture Accelerator, a program run out of Gies College of Business and open to all University of Illinois students. Van den Avont received a $2,500 stipend for summer housing—so he could work at the iVenture Accelerator all summer—and a $10,000 grant that could be used for any part of building his business. He still has a vast majority of the $10,000 remaining and said the money he has spent has been used on product development, buying competitors’ mats and purchasing equipment to make his mats.

“iVenture has been extremely important because I was able to work on HexNest full-time over the summer and devote all my energy to it,” Van den Avont, 19, said. “It’s great being around other entrepreneurs as well. I’ll be at the iVenture Accelerator at 10 pm on a Tuesday night or early Sunday morning, and I’ll look to my left and right, and everybody’s here.”

Van den Avont, a mechanical engineering major at Illinois, has a provisional patent on a polymer composite that is an alternative to traditional foam used to fill mats. His first mat in development is a supplemental mat that covers much larger mats that fill gymnastics clubs and schools throughout the world. Van den Avont said foam mats cost up to $400, while HexNest’s expected sale price will be around $250. The mats will be about the size of a twin-sized mattress—5 feet by 8 feet—and 8 inches thick, Van den Avont said.

Van den Avont expects to have a full-size prototype created by October. In early September, he is moving HexNest into downtown Urbana’s co-working space [co][lab]. Founder Matt Cho donated the space after Van den Avont and HexNest competed in the Cozad New Venture Challenge, which encourages University of Illinois students to innovate and create new businesses.

“Matt is very involved across the Champaign-Urbana entrepreneurial ecosystem, and we are excited to have his support,” Van den Avont said.

Van den Avont said HexNest is not a gymnastics company, but the sport is where he’ll first test the product. He said the polymer could be used in variety of ways moving forward, from airplane seat cushions to flooring to protective clothing.

Van den Avont’s parents, Craig and Sandy, are both University of Illinois graduates. Craig Van den Avont is president of GAM Enterprises Inc. in Mount Prospect, while Sandy is human resources manager at Chalet, a well-known landscape, nursery, and garden center based in Wilmette.

Van den Avont never expected to be an entrepreneur before his accident on the gymnastics mat.

“I never really thought of myself as an entrepreneur,” he said. “If you told me two years ago that I would be an entrepreneur, I wouldn’t have believed you.”

For more information on HexNest, visit hexnest.net.