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Help for local inventors, provided with a GRIN

Daniel Girdwood, GRIN board member.

The non-profit Grand Rapids Inventors Network offers local innovators a wealth of resources and a launching pad for ideas, and their membership is climbing steadily. Steven Thomas Kent sits in on a product review session and reports.
The Grand Rapids Inventors Network, or GRIN, was born out of a connection with “As Seen on TV” stores, which might lead you to visions of motor-mouthed pitchmen and an endless array of home-and-garden trinkets — the “ShamWows” and “Slap Chops” of the world.

These products can sell big and occasionally turn into tomorrow’s home necessities, to be sure, and GRIN can help you if you’ve got an idea in the household-helper mold. But sit in on one of the non-profit group’s product review sessions and you’ll quickly realize that the scope of products they work with goes way beyond easy fixes for the lawn and kitchen.

The first product on the docket at a recent GRIN product review session, attended by Rapid Growth: a single-person electric vehicle with an integrated motor-and-wheel design. Dan Tyler, an architect and construction engineer from Chicago, drove three hours to meet with the GRIN board and hear their feedback on his vision for a groundbreaking new car design.

He provides everyone in the room with a thick packet of information, including product history, technical specifications and mathematical calculations, and 3D product mock-ups that resemble something out of the old-school TRON. He isn’t aiming low with this invention.

“A whole vehicle could take hundreds, even thousands of people to bring to a working stage of completion,” one of the board members points out to him. “I’d encourage you to focus on where you’re adding the most value, which in this case is your wheel [design].”

The GRIN board doesn’t mince words during their product reviews, but that’s part of their promise: the website refers to the sessions as “unbiased, frank and brutally honest.” Board members ask about problems that inventors have encountered, and point out new ones on the horizon that they haven’t hit just yet. One by one, they look at the kinks in new products and provide contacts, web resources and prospective partners that might help in working them out.

After the 15-minute session on the futuristic car design, they go through a similar process with two more inventions: An LED-powered safety vest targeted toward runners, cyclists and road workers, and a pair of new games for the specialty game market. All three inventors leave the session with noticeably matching looks on their faces: deep in thought, a little dazed, knocked around, invigorated. It's the anxious thrill of taking your invention in front of sharp minds and fielding heavyweight questions, coming out relatively intact.

Joe Finkler, the president of GRIN and an investment advisor by trade, started the wheels of GRIN into motion when he became the owner of the “As Seen on TV” retail store in Grand Rapids (the store has a temporary location in the Rivertown Mall in Grand Rapids). Finkler isn’t an inventor himself, he says, but he harbors a passion for novel products and cutting-edge technology — he’s not afraid to be the first, and sometimes only, guy on the block to own any new tech-toy that catches his eye. In addition to his myriad inventors-network duties, Finkler has also worked with local WZZM 13 to develop the “Try It Before You Buy It” segment, in which local reporter Lauren Stanton tries out new and novel products to deliver a verdict for consumers.

“I love gadgets,” Finkler says. “If you come into our house we’ve got tons of gadgets. We’ve got a lot of automation in our house. It’s always been a great feeling, to me, to have something that’s unique and inspiring to people.”

As a buyer for “As Seen on TV,” Finkler saw hundreds of inventions and new products move through his store, giving him a feel for what works and what doesn’t in the market of cutting-edge products. With his college background in marketing, he began to feel that he could use his expertise to help prospective inventors in a more hands-on fashion than just selling their finished inventions at his store.

“Owning the store with my wife,” Finkler says, “we’d have people come in and say, ‘Geez, I wish I’d have invented this.’ So a good friend of mine, he was thinking about starting a Muskegon inventors’ network, and he had this template, and he asked me to be on the board … [I knew that] a lot of inventors will invent something, go through the whole process, and they’re like, ‘Hey, it doesn’t sell. Why is nobody buying it?’”

Finkler and his friend helped found the Muskegon Inventors Network (MIN), which is sort of a sister group to GRIN — both “spokes” actually, as Finkler calls them, of the “hub” group the Michigan Inventors Coalition, a parent group that brings together various inventors’ groups from around the state. Finkler serves on the board of that group, too, in addition to GRIN and MIN. The significant overlap between the groups is intentional. All the groups work in tune, wired in together, frequently collaborating and all using the inventing template that formed the initial idea in Muskegon.

Membership in GRIN, which costs $50 per year and includes attendance at GRIN’s monthly meetings and inventing lectures, plus access for one product review session, is currently at 115 members, Finkler says, compared to a membership of only a few inventors when he came on board in 2009. Finkler says he’s hoping for another ten percent increase in membership within the year, and eventually as many as 20 related inventor groups in Michigan.

These numbers certainly give the impression that the inventing business has been taking off, which doesn’t seem like a given in an economy that one could generously characterize as “slowly recovering.” However, Finkler says it’s exactly because of the recent economic crunch that the self-made invention business is booming.

“Back in 2008 when employers laid off many engineers and a lot of other people, they needed to find a creative way to spend time,” Finkler says. “Rather than try and create an invention for a major corporation — where we know what a corporation is gonna pay an employee if they invent something, which is very little — in ‘09 and ‘10 we started to see quite a few creative minds who wanted to come aboard and do their own inventing.”

Finkler also says that automation of the patent and trademark processes and the ease of internet searches for similar products have added to the fertile conditions for do-it-yourself product developers.

“I can go on Google images, and type in your invention name,” says Finkler, “and you can find out within seconds if someone else already has that invention name anywhere in the world. You don’t have to go and look through paperbacks to figure this stuff out, and it’s so much more efficient. So yeah, now’s an awesome time [for inventors] because we have all these resources, where ten years ago we didn’t know.”

As the groups grow, so do the networking opportunities and resources available, but it’s still the product review sessions, available only to GRIN members for a fee of $20, that GRIN is most proud of and that Finkler says offer the most value to prospective inventors.

“Every great invention starts with a great thought,” Finkler says, “but there are so many challenges. If they come to us, we can’t get them through every challenge, but we can give them a lot of resources to overcome those challenges. And you know what, there are a lot of successful inventions out there.”

The MIN website  lists a few of the more lucrative products that have come through the Muskegon network to launch successful sales campaigns: the Freedom Wand, a personal cleaning aid for people with mobility issues, and the Klever Kutter, a 9/11-inspired box cutter that promises not to cut people or the products inside boxes, are just a notable two of the numerous gadgets listed.

Not every successful invention is a glamorous one, and vice-versa. Many of the gadgets that get GRIN members salivating at meetings are the kind of stuff that most people flip right past on late-night TV ads: a swiveling wall-mount power strip that lets one push furniture flush against an outlet, for example, or one GRIN member’s hand-cart dolly, the “Landscaper’s Buddy,” which began to turn a profit after years of hard work and endless re-designs. These ideas may not titillate every mind, but they find a niche and fill it well. And whatever does get you going, whether it’s games, hobby equipment, apparel or even vehicles, GRIN members are ready to help with that, too.

Of course, not every invention idea is worth taking to fruition, either. Part of GRIN’s mission is providing “tough love” of sorts.

“We help a lot of people, and sometimes it’s to tell them, ‘No, don’t go any further.’ That’s help because they’re not sinking any more money and time. Sometimes you’ve gotta say ‘no’ to an invention. Other times people will say they really like this idea, they get down the road with it and they find out someone else has already done it. In that case we can help them by finding out early that someone already did it, and so we save them a lot of work.”

Finkler also notes that GRIN can often help inventors avoid money-wiring scams when trying to secure resources for the inventing process. And the group recently added grassroots inventor and phone app inventor Dennis LaMare, whom Finkel refers to as the group’s “app guru,” to the board to provide expertise on apps and purely software-based inventions.

Overall, it’s a good time for GRIN and for local inventors; the word that Finkler can’t help but keep blurting out when he speaks to members at the monthly meetings is “exciting.” But it’s not all about making a profit either, although that’s certainly a part of the appeal. Finkler says that a lot of the excitement comes from the chance to witness groundbreaking ideas in genesis and help local inventors realize their visions, one hurdle at a time.

“The cool thing about helping local inventors, a lot of them get their products made locally,” he says. “The prices may be a little higher, but they’re made here instead of in China. So there’s a good feeling about local inventing, where you know you’re helping to keep jobs here [in Michigan] and so forth.”

Steven Thomas Kent is a Michigan son who ran away to join the circus called Chicago for the better part of a decade. All grown up now and based in Grand Rapids, he can be stalked on Twitter @steventkent or reached at steven.t.kent@gmail.com for story tips and feedback.

Photography by Adam Bird
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