Helping you know your limit

Written by: Wendy Lee (Star Tribune)

Forget the mechanical bull or a wild karaoke rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

At country/western bar Cowboy Jack’s, patrons now have another way to gauge how drunk they are — they can pay for a breathalyzer test.

Customers pay $2 to breathe into a disposable straw they connect to the IntoxBox, a touch-screen machine that has a breathalyzer.

Customers guess how much their blood alcohol level is and the machine later gives them their results. If a customers guesses correctly, a code pops up that’s good for a free test.

Ryan Walden, the IntoxBox’s inventor, hopes the contraption gives people the option of becoming aware of their blood alcohol level before they consider driving home.

“You have a speedometer in your car to help you obey the speed limit, yet we’re expected to obey the drinking and driving laws without access to a tool that is supposed to help us obey the law,” Walden said.

The idea for IntoxBox came in 2008, when one of Walden’s college friends was charged for driving under the influence after he underestimated how much he had to drink at a local bar. Walden, a junior studying economics and business at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, started researching the idea and drafted a business plan a year later.

He interviewed distributors of breathalyzer machines and bar owners and learned that there were problems with the accuracy, maintenance and appearance of products in the market.

“They gave me a whole list of things they didn’t like about them, so I took all the ideas and tried to come up with this product that took care of all that,” Walden said.

Making the IntoxBox wasn’t easy. Months were spent talking with engineers and programmers to figure out which firms would create the best product.

A year ago, the company finally came up with its first version.

After some customer feedback, Walden said he realized the machine’s instructions were too complicated for intoxicated people to use.

“We cut down on the words and used more pictures, to make it really hard to mess up,” Walden said.

IntoxBox is currently at six Twin Cities bars: Cowboy Jack’s in Bloomington, Joe Senser’s in Bloomington, the Park Tavern in St. Louis Park, Shamrock’s in St. Paul, Cabooze in Minneapolis and Fabulous Fern’s Bar & Grill in St. Paul. There are plans to install at least 15 more machines at other locations this year.

“I think it’s a good product for people to have and to get some idea of where they are at,” said Steve DeZiel, general manager of Senser’s in Bloomington. “It’s a different option.”

IntoxBox is the product of Eden Prairie-based Walden Innovative Resources. The company was co-founded by Walden, his brother Whit, and his father Gene, who is the main investor in IntoxBox. (Gene is a former personal finance columnist for the Star Tribune; Ryan’s mother is a Star Tribune employee.)

Walden Innovative Resources plans to generate revenues by selling the machines to distributors for about $3,000 and through advertising revenue on the IntoxBox’s touch screen. Ads are $50 a month, with each machine cycling through 12,000 times a month during prime business hours, the company said.

Distributors and the bars generate sales from customers using the IntoxBox to get breathalyzer tests. On Friday and Saturday nights at a good location, an IntoxBox could get 20 to 30 uses, Walden said.

Unlike breathalyzers sold over-the-counter at drugstores, Intoxbox sells itself directly to distributors.

Critics of the device have expressed concern over the accuracy of the tests and how the results may cause customers to go to bars without having a plan for how to get home.

“We feel that it can be perceived as a game,” said Brenda Thomas, executive director for Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s Minnesota chapter.

But Walden, who’s never had a DWI, said he believes IntoxBox could help lower the number of drunk driving arrests and prevent accidents.

Last year, nearly 30,000 people were given DWIs in Minnesota, according to the Department of Public Safety.

Walden says he believes IntoxBox is just as accurate as a police breathalyzer, as long as users wait 10 to 15 minutes after their last drink before taking the test. IntoxBox doesn’t keep any record of a user’s identity or score.

Earlier this year, Walden, 23, was at a bar and used an IntoxBox. His 0.11 score made him realize that he needed a friend to drive him home.

“It’s actually stopped me from driving,” Walden said.