The Shooting Victim Whose Invention Brought Him Back to Life

Not until TITIN founder and CEO Patrick Whaley was shot and left for dead did he realize the full potential of the weighted compression shirt he invented in college.

Footsteps pounded across the parking garage as Patrick Whaley stepped out of his SUV. When he looked up, three masked gunmen were running toward him. “Get down on the ground!” one yelled as he aimed his gun.

Whaley thought it was a prank, something out of the TV show “Punk’d,” where the gun would turn out to be plastic. This couldn’t possibly be an armed robbery, he thought — he was just a college kid. Whaley was moving lamps into his new apartment in midtown Atlanta, the first one he’d ever leased off of the Georgia Institute of Technology campus.

Not until Whaley felt the barrel on the back of his neck did he realize the gun was no toy.

Ultimately, the bullet would pierce Whaley’s chest, tearing through his right lung and liver and rupturing a major vein. As he waited for the ambulance, more than half his body’s blood pouring onto the pavement, Whaley questioned whether he’d see his family again.

Six years later, Whaley considers surviving the shooting to be more than a milestone. Through his encounter with death, he believes he found his purpose in life.

Whaley, now 28, is CEO and founder of TITIN, the manufacturer of a next-generation evolution of weighted vests. TITIN’s compression shirts and shorts contain weighted gel inserts, which allow wearers to move as they normally would — but with an additional 8 pounds of resistance to help build strength and stamina.

When Whaley launched the business as a mechanical engineering student, he envisioned elite athletes wearing his product. And today, they do: With the company having been featured on ABC’s “Shark Tank” and on track to gross more than $12 million this year, TITIN outfits players from the NBA, MLB and NFL, including every name on the Pittsburgh Steelers roster.

What he didn’t anticipate was how the product could help practically anyone in need of a little strength. The obese man vowing to lose the weight once and for all. The child with autism comforted by a feeling of security. The college student recovering from a shooting, struggling to stand tall again.

“I used my shirt to bring myself back to life.”

“It’s so much bigger than just football players, than just athletes,” Whaley said. “I used my shirt to bring myself back to life.”

During his senior year of high school, Whaley spotted his idea on the shelf at The Home Depot: a scented air filter for cars, infused with baking soda to neutralize odor.

It had dawned on him when he started up his dad’s 1981 Corvette on a cool fall day. Using the heater for the first time in months produced a musty smell, the result of bacterial growth on the filter.

But Whaley’s idea had remained only that. Someone else with the same vision for air filters had turned it to reality — and landed the product on retail shelves.

Whaley had a laundry list of inventions he’d created in his mind but hadn’t acted on. Standing there in The Home Depot, he decided he needed to be not just an inventor, but also an entrepreneur.

“If I never activated those ideas,” Whaley said he realized at that time, “then the ideas, in essence, were worthless.”

When he enrolled at Georgia Tech the following year, Whaley decided to start pursuing the product he inadvertently conceived while in elementary school. As a scrawny redhead with an unrealistic dream of playing football, Whaley stuffed his backpack with extra books and did shoulder shrugs on the way to class, hoping to build muscle. All he got were sore shoulders.

As he grew older, he thought of a better solution to the problem. A weighted vest can shift and slide during a workout, which restricts an athlete’s form and range of motion — or worse, leads to injury. Whaley imagined a shirt with weighted portions positioned over the main muscle groups, something that almost resembled Batman’s chiseled suit. The weight would become part of the shirt; the shirt would become part of the body. Athletes could train more effectively, and with fewer injuries.

In his dorm room, Whaley started sketching designs. When he wasn’t busy studying mechanical engineering, he sneaked into physiology and kinesiology classes, eager to expand on his fascination with fitness and the human body.

When Whaley finalized his design using computer-aided design software, he ordered hydrogel from a medical supplier to create the weighted inserts of the shirt. He couldn’t find seamstresses willing to create his prototype, so he taught himself to sew by watching YouTube tutorials.

Whaley’s parents encouraged him to focus on school and experiment with his invention later. Friends expressed their doubts about the product, just as investors and lawyers would later on. “Dude, people wear weighted vests,” friends told him. “Why would they buy your shirt?”

“Dude, people wear weighted vests. Why would they buy your shirt?”

Whaley had already spent much of his life proving people wrong. He joined the high-school swim team as a sophomore who had never swam competitively and graduated as a school record-holder. Teachers encouraged Whaley, who for years struggled to learn because of dyslexia, to attend trade school. Instead, he got accepted to Georgia Tech, one of the nation’s top engineering schools.

Whaley’s fiancée, Catherine Silvestri, says Whaley thrives on defying challenges. (In another bold move, they began dating in college after Whaley interrupted her 300-person band class to give her a flower.) Criticism of his product “didn’t shake him; it didn’t diminish his drive,” she said. “If anything, it made him more confident. He knew he was doing the right thing.”

By the fourth year of his five-year engineering program, Whaley had produced prototypes of the shirt that he used while training as a semiprofessional bodybuilder. On the night of May 4, 2009, he was almost done moving into his first off-campus apartment. All he needed was a couple of lamps, so he headed back to his SUV in the parking garage.

The gunmen were searching Whaley’s pockets when another opportunity arose: A man and a woman had just stepped off the elevator into the parking garage. As one of the robbers began rummaging through the woman’s purse, Whaley couldn’t contain his anger.

“Look, guys, you got what you needed,” Whaley told the gunmen. “Just get the hell out of here before someone gets hurt.”

Suddenly, a gun was aimed at his face. Whaley remained calm, convinced that the gunmen — all teenagers — wouldn’t have the courage to shoot if he looked into their eyes. Later, in the confession that landed the assailants 25 to 30 years in prison, the gunman would tell police that Whaley was so calm that it scared him. He pulled the trigger.

Realizing that the safety lock hadn’t been released, Whaley seized the opportunity to lunge for the gun — just as the gunman pulled the trigger again. The bullet fired into his chest.

Adrenaline pumping through his body, Whaley scrambled to his car to retrieve his cell phone while the robbers drove off in a van. “Wait right here,” he told the couple from the elevator, his chest filling with what felt like razor blades as his right lung collapsed. They disappeared, apparently leaving him for dead.

In hindsight, Whaley sees how easily they could have been right. He could have died if three women hadn’t exited the elevator moments later to help. If the chief surgeon at Grady Memorial Hospital hadn’t been on call that night. If the bullet hit one inch to the left, at the right chamber of his heart.

Whaley could barely stand when he was released from the hospital 17 days later, his muscles atrophied and body ravaged by surgeries and scar tissue.

…the former bodybuilder who used to squat with 400 pounds was challenged by pink, half-pound dumbbells.

When he started physical therapy after three months of healing, the former bodybuilder who used to squat with 400 pounds was challenged by pink, half-pound dumbbells. Missing a third of his right lung, which was removed during surgery to stop internal bleeding, Whaley was constantly short of breath.

Frustrated by his lack of progress after six weeks of therapy, Whaley was looking in his closet one day when he noticed his weighted shirt. He decided to squeeze into it, a painful process in itself, and wear it for an hour daily as he did household tasks. Because the shirt’s gel inserts can be frozen or microwaved, he also began using the product as a source of heat therapy.

After two weeks of wearing the shirt, Whaley says he noticed more results than after six weeks of physical therapy. He was no longer hunched over as he walked. He had more energy. Finally, he lifted his right arm.

For the first time since the shooting, Whaley felt hope. He could regain his fitness, thanks to his own invention.

For the first time since the shooting, Whaley felt hope. He could regain his fitness, thanks to his own invention.

“That’s when it clicked,” he said. “The market segments just exploded in my mind. I was going after athletes — now I’m going after everybody.”

“It was no longer just an idea or a concept. It’s something I actually used.”

Whaley arrived at the stadium with a load of TITIN products and a tent, hoping to sell shirts at the 2011 championships of a new sport: CrossFit.

In the two years since the shooting, his invention had transitioned from a hobby to a business as Whaley won more than $70,000 in business plan competitions, including renowned events at Georgia Tech and Rice University. Originally called Omega Wear, the business was now TITIN, named for the protein that gives muscles elasticity.

Through his own recovery, Whaley realized that the product’s potential transcended any one sport. Yet he wasn’t sure where to begin. Although he had sold to universities like Georgia and Tennessee, he was finding that the college market involved too much red tape and too many longtime coaches hesitant to embrace brand-new technology. CrossFit, he hoped, might provide some steadier revenue.

Whaley didn’t grasp the popularity of the sport until he arrived at the CrossFit Games, the first CrossFit competition televised on ESPN. Simply pitching his own tent wasn’t an option. A vendor booth had to be purchased for more than $8,000 — which, at the time, seemed like all the money Whaley had. He took a risk and purchased the booth, thinking that if he couldn’t sell 90 TITIN shirts, he’d have to rethink the viability of the company.

Instead, he sold a few hundred within 45 minutes. As endorsements spread around a community obsessed with improving fitness, CrossFit has become TITIN’s largest market, constituting 40 percent of its business.

As a result, TITIN also began reaching what’s now its second-largest demographic: members of the military, many of whom are CrossFit devotees who use the shirt to prepare for carrying heavy loads on missions. “This is by far my favorite piece of training gear,” one Special Forces soldier wrote to the company. “I’m significantly stronger, faster, and quicker to recover than ever before.”

Meanwhile, although Whaley struggled to get meetings with pro sports teams, athletes began learning about TITIN, anyway. Peyton Manning apparently discovered the product after Whaley landed a deal with Tennessee, his alma mater.

But as business picked up, Whaley was heading into financial trouble.

But as business picked up, Whaley was heading into financial trouble. In 2012, he sold a 25 percent stake in the company to British investors, who hired an executive chairman to assume an operational role. Whaley says the investors made business decisions he didn’t agree with and blew money on a corporate car and apartment, as well as frequent first-class plane tickets from London. In six months, $1 million disappeared.

In October 2013, TITIN had a monthly revenue of $10,000, not nearly enough to allow Whaley to buy out the investors. In an attempt to grow e-commerce sales, Whaley invested in Facebook ads.

It worked even better than he had hoped. Facebook users noticed TITIN, and so did buyers from Amazon and Brookstone. After Whaley signed contracts with both major retailers, TITIN’s monthly revenue skyrocketed, reaching $1 million in May 2014.

Still, as Whaley used his profit to regain ownership of the company, he lacked the cash he needed to produce inventory. As Whaley faced a backlog of $1.4 million in purchase orders he couldn’t fulfill, a new investor couldn’t have come along at a better time.

Standing before five millionaires, Whaley built up his “Shark Tank” pitch to a dramatic Clark Kent moment.

“I’m here today to show that there is a better way to train. The only question is,” Whaley said, pausing as he ripped off his button-down to reveal the TITIN shirt underneath, “which one of you sharks can keep up?”

“My B.S. meter is going through the roof.”

Mark Cuban began rolling his eyes almost immediately. The outspoken Dallas Mavericks owner compared TITIN to ankle weights and even a padded bra. “My B.S. meter is going through the roof,” he said — three times.

For reasons Whaley still doesn’t understand, the sharks interpreted his confidence as arrogance. During the 10-minute segment, edited down from two hours of taping, Robert Herjavec said Whaley made him uncomfortable. Kevin O’Leary called him an ass.

Daymond John, founder of the retailer FUBU, said he wasn’t sure if he trusted Whaley. But having suffered a double hernia as a result of wearing a weighted vest, he liked the product. Whaley accepted his offer: $500,000 for a 20 percent stake in TITIN.

“We’re going to prove these guys wrong,” John said as they agreed on the deal.

Since the episode aired on Halloween of 2014, John’s investment has more than doubled, Whaley said (although he couldn’t disclose if his equity in the company has changed). TITIN continues to pull in about $1 million in revenue each month, and thanks to a partnership John brokered with Samsung, Whaley no longer has the same fulfillment concerns.

This year, Dick’s Sporting Goods began carrying the TITIN line. While Whaley was in Pittsburgh negotiating the deal at the company’s headquarters, he also sweet-talked his way into an unscheduled meeting with the strength and conditioning coach for the Steelers, which became the first NFL team to adopt TITIN.

The client list on TITIN’s website now includes more than 25 other pro and college teams — even the Cuban-owned Mavericks.

The client list on TITIN’s website now includes more than 25 other pro and college teams — even the Cuban-owned Mavericks. Cuban shook Whaley’s hand at an event recently, telling him not about his “B.S. meter” but to keep up the good work.

But Whaley believes that TITIN has only begun to reach its potential. He’s talking with military officials in hopes of making TITIN standard-issue training gear. He’s developing a line for women and another for children with ADHD and autism, for whom weighted vests can have a calming effect.

Having sold to physicians and medical suppliers, Whaley wants to see health insurance companies cover TITIN for medical uses. His chiropractor, Dr. Jong Lee in Atlanta, recommends TITIN shirts to target weak muscles in patients with scoliosis and other postural issues. “This product can crack into that muscle region,” Lee said. “It’s easier to stimulate that muscle even if the person isn’t doing any activity.”

With patents on inventions ranging from resistance swimsuits to cooling sports bras, Whaley envisions TITIN as a brand synonymous with better training. He describes what the company will do in 10 or 20 years not as selling weighted compression gear but as being “the world leader of a healthy lifestyle.” That, Whaley believes, is why he survived the shooting: to help others regain their health through TITIN, just as he did.

“I want people to be inspired by my story: If he can do it, we all can do it,” he said. “The only thing holding you back is yourself, and when you come to that realization, anything is possible.”

This is part of a Small Business Saturday series underwritten by Infusionsoft to celebrate the struggles and victories of small business owners. If you enjoyed this story, please take a moment to recommend and share. Thank you for reading, and for celebrating with us those folks who make the world a better place through small business.

Amy Saunders is a content creator at Infusionsoft, where she writes content that inspires and empowers small business owners. Writing about business brings Amy’s work full circle: She began her career as a business reporter at The Columbus Dispatch in Ohio before becoming a features writer. After more than six years there, she moved to Phoenix, where she was an editor at a content marketing agency before joining Infusionsoft in 2015. Follow her on Twitter @amyksaunders.