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Medford's Glass Earth Studios has bright future

If you're a big-time college football fan, David and Billie McMillan want to light up your life.

For those simply possessing the old alma mater spirit, they can brighten things up for you, too.

The owners of Glass Earth Studios began manufacturing licensed University of Oregon "O" logo neon signs last fall — just in time to catch hold of the high-flying Ducks' tail feathers.

The University of Oregon is fresh off a Rose Bowl victory, and the Nike-backed institution is a burgeoning marketing mega-power. So when Oregon marketers liked what they saw, it meant a bright future for the start-up company.

"The neon signs we had seen before weren't even similar," said Diane Wirth, who oversees the purchase of licensed insignia sportswear and products for the university-owned Duck Stores. "This was the first we've seen of this caliber and quality."

For the McMillans, the stylized "O" sign — combining the shapes of Autzen Stadium and Hayward Field — is a stepping stone to the collegiate world, where alumni and fan bases can dwarf statewide populations.

Before making their pilgrimage to Eugene to meet with UO officials, the McMillans figured it would be a tough sell.

"We thought they were a little skeptical," Billie McMillan said. "They had been approached by someone with a neon sign that was poorly made and it broke easily. We had ours in a customized box from West Coast Paper.

"Not only were they impressed by the packaging, but when they held the product in their hand they were happy with the construction."

The McMillans expected it would be days or weeks to get an answer, instead there was an immediate order of 70 signs and a second order is expected soon.

"It took a month to get the license," Billie McMillan said. "They were excited by the product and moved beyond certain steps to get it into stores quicker. It gives us exclusive rights for (neon signs). It was a big deal. We're actually allowed to make anything for them now — it doesn't have to be neon — as long as it has their approval."

The neon signs sell for $250 at seven Duck Stores and online. But interest isn't limited to the campus bookstore and shopping malls.

"Coming back from Eugene, we stopped in Canyonville and the gas station at Seven Feathers ordered three and then they called and wanted three more because they were flying off the shelf."

With the licensing deal, Glass Earth Studios can sell the "O" signs independently, paying the university a 10 percent royalty.

Oregon State came knocking on the door, but because it is part of the Collegiate Licensing Committee, representing 250 schools, the paperwork will take another month or two. The cost for obtaining a CLC agreement is $1,000 for one college, $1,500 for three or $5,000 for the whole group, Billie McMillan said.

"We're hoping to get the Oregon State license within the next month or two," David McMillan said. "Then after that we'll go with the other Pac-12 schools, like the Huskies and Stanford. It will be a two- or three-year process to get all the licensing."

Billie McMillan said they also hope to get the signs into major retailers such as Walmart, Fred Meyer and Dick's Sporting Goods.

The first sign was fashioned for a furniture store owner, in exchange for some furniture, she said.

It takes David McMillan 45 minutes to blow the glass for the signs and another 15 minutes to assemble the backplates that are laser cut and powder coated in Ohio. The only foreign-made component is the transformer, made in China.

Glass Earth Studios fashions itself as the only exclusive neon sign shop between Eugene and Chico, Calif., and is one of three Underwriters Laboratory-approved sign shops in the Rogue Valley.

David McMillan was a project manager and designer during a 15-year stint with Signs Etc., developing signs for Rays Food Place locations, Callahan's Lodge near Mount Ashland and Dutch Bros. Coffee. More recently, he worked as an engineer and designer for pickup truck accessory company Bedslide.

With one eye on the collegiate market and another on old standbys such as auto company logos, the McMillans set up shop in a 2,500-square-foot building at 4980 Industry Drive north of the airport. David McMillan gets glass blowing help from Clint Robertson, while Billie McMillan assembles the lights with help from Rob Moretimer.

They think future opportunities are as bright as their neon signs.

"We're in the process of getting licensed by General Motors so we can produce their logos," Billie McMillan said. "There is a huge market for individuals wanting Pontiac and other automobile signs and from gas stations."

Medford's Glass Earth Studios has bright future