MADISON, Wis. -- When thinking of things you can cook up in the kitchen microwave, soft plastic worms don't usually leap to mind. Unless you are an inventor, angler and dreamer seeking to build a better fish bait. Ben Hobbins is just that, and he is hoping the bait he has invented and patented with help from the University of Wisconsin System will capture at least a portion of the $45 billion spent annually on fishing in the United States. Bait, specifically the jiggly, soft-plastic stuff that is too good-looking for fish to resist, amounts to a monster walleye-sized consumer market -- and Hobbins is doing his best to land a part of it. Along the way, Hobbins figured out his invention is a whole lot better for the environment than the soft plastic bait many anglers have in their tackle boxes. The inspiration for the invention is his mother's love of freshly caught Wisconsin walleye and panfish, his background in the state's biotech industry and the stinging cold that often bites the hands of those who ice fish, Hobbins said. A Wisconsin native and avid angler and outdoorsman, he was seeking to develop a permanent -- or as close to permanent as he could get -- soft bait. He wanted something that wouldn't fall off a hook or tear when fish struck it or when it was dragged through underwater vegetation. And he was looking for something that wouldn't have to be re-rigged while ice fishing, so his mom could have her fish filets in winter and he could keep his hands warm. The result is IronClads brand soft plastic lures. The lures have an inner membrane -- call it a skeleton -- derived from biomedical technology, made from a mesh based on the materials used in skin grafting. That makes the squirmy, pliable baits surprisingly strong. They have a tensile strength -- the amount of force needed to tear something apart -- of nearly 100 pounds. And, they stay on fishhooks. "The goal is to have the IronClads become the new industry standard," Hobbins said. His baits have attracted attention from more than just fish. IronClads garnered a 2009 Popular Science Invention Award. The awards recognize what the magazine's editors consider the 10 best inventions of the year. The magazine's researchers "just go out and canvass the world" looking for inventions, said Mike Haney, executive editor of Popular Science. "It's a heck of a process, actually," Haney said. "We do a lot of vetting" on each of the winners, he added. The main criteria for the awards are that the invention is clever, is created by an individual and has the potential to solve a problem. In the case of Hobbins' invention, the problem that is potentially solved is how much soft plastic bait ends up in rivers, lakes and streams every year after it tears or falls off hooks. "It was a problem that none of us were really aware of," Haney said. While the effects from such things as lead and fish netting left behind in waterways are well documented, less is known about soft plastics. "I have occasionally thought, when a bass throws a worm, what happens to that worm, but I never did the math," said Dan Small, the host and producer of Outdoor Wisconsin, a public television show that will mark 25 years on the air in November. A group of UW students who did do the math concluded that 25 million pounds of soft plastic baits end up in lakes, rivers and streams every year. In another estimate, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife refers to estimates of 20 million pounds. "The effects of soft plastic lure pollution on freshwater ecosystems are not well understood yet, but it is unlikely that (fish) eating soft plastic lures will be found to be a good thing," according to a story in the summer edition of Maine Fish and Wildlife Magazine, published by that state's Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. The average life expectancy of soft plastic lures is more than 200 years, the Maine IF&W department said. Small was so enamored of Hobbins' invention that he decided to invest in Hobbins' company, Lake Resources Group Inc., in Waunakee. Hobbins and Small also co-founded the Lake Delton Fisheries Restoration Project, which is raising money to restore the fish population in the lake. Lake Delton drained into the Wisconsin River in 2008 after torrential rain caused its shoreline to fail. Hobbins' invention derives partially from his background in the state's biomedical industry, where he once worked as a senior strategist in a biotech firm. "I saw skin graft technology in our weekly engineering meetings," he said. That led to the idea of using that same technology to strengthen the soft plastic lures. He built what he calls "pre-alpha prototypes" in his kitchen, using the microwave in the production process. "I knew I had something," he said. In early 2007, he entered the Governor's Business Plan Contest. He made it to the top 10 in the advanced manufacturing category. He looked to the Weinert Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Business for help. He also turned to the Wisconsin Innovation Service Center at UW-Whitewater, where a new product assessment was completed. All the research said the product would be viable. Professor Tim Osswald, co-director of the Polymer Engineering Center in the mechanical engineering department at UW-Madison, said he believes the process of making the bait is a breakthrough. "It is a perfect composites application that will have a huge impact on the environment," Osswald said. From Hobbins' kitchen, the product made its way to UW-Madison. "My graduate students and I helped Ben in producing the first prototypes and helped with materials issues," Osswald said. Hobbins has a patent pending on the technology, another part of the process of bringing the invention to market. Researching patents is a grueling process, he said. "I wanted to bail on that so many times." In 2007, he did a stock offering that raised $375,000. He's contemplating another, but the details have yet to be finalized, he said. In 2008, he wrote another patent to cover the invention's potential biotech, biomed, aerospace and transportation possibilities, he said. That one is also pending. Now, Hobbins has to figure out how to persuade anglers to buy Iron Clads. "Fishermen, you have to win their trust," he said. He is working to get the product placed with large retailers and is also setting up an e-commerce segment on his Web site. The product is available at some smaller bait shops. "My goal is to push this so the market potential is fully exposed." "Right now, it's just me," he said of the number of people employed by Lake Resources Group. "We're trying to ramp up," he said. "We're just hanging in there."