Whether inventing a novel solution or building a billion-dollar business, innovators in West Michigan have a few traits in common. They all share stories of tenacity and curiosity, and there's much more to learn from them at local meetup groups like the Grand Rapids Inventors Network or the Michigan Inventors Coalition, or in more academic environments like GVSU's Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation.
It's a gray afternoon in West Michigan, just like many others. Muskegon resident Joe Finkler is picking up a few necessities at his local supermarket, like many others.
He inserts his card in the chip reader, and waits to input his PIN using the same keypad that many others have used. Many times.
But this transaction is different. A flash of neon green emerges from Finkler's pocket. It's an anti-microbial proxy to his own digits, a discretely carried Kooty Key, which Finkler uses to press the buttons and confirm his purchase minus the innumerable bacteria he hadn't counted on taking home.
Finkler uses his Kooty Key, an invention of former professional bodybuilder and car salesman Ken Kolb, several times a day. It solves a problem many may not even know they have, and it was invented in Michigan.
Joe Finkler"You go to a Family Dollar or go to Walmart or wherever, and have you ever seen them clean those machines?" Finkler says. "The inventor found a problem, he solves that problem, and now everyone in my family and all my friends in the community use his invention. It's an awesome product."
Kooty Key aside, invention is a keystone of Finkler's work. As the founding board member and past president of the Muskegon Inventors Network in 2008, past president of the Grand Rapids Inventors Network, and current president of the Michigan Inventors Coalition, Finkler is surrounded by local inventors with ideas they're passionate about. He grew a business out of helping them succeed, running several “As Seen on TV” retail stores that sold those inventions, before devoting his time to the process that goes into developing them.
"If you ever bought something from Billy Mays, like OxyClean, we actually sold that in our retail stores," he says. "People would come in and see these gadgets from on TV and they'd say, 'this is really cool.' And they'd also say, 'you know, I got this idea...'"
The ideas were enough to convince Finkler to conspire with fellow inventor Orville Crain on a means of bringing them together.
"All these people were coming in saying they have these ideas and inventions, but they had nowhere to go," Finkler says.
Soon after, the Muskegon Inventors Network, which Crain currently runs as president, was born.
After leading the MIN, Finkler got involved with the Grand Rapids and Michigan Inventors Coalition, but throughout his involvement with each, he's seen creative minds conceptualize and create new products faster — and with much less frustration — than they would have working on their own.
"The inventor groups are a go-to place to get on what I call it the 'yellow brick road of inventing,'" he says. "Inventor groups supply the template to keep them within the lines, and get their invention from a white napkin, through a prototype, to actual product, and then to retail."
Like any road, Finkler's yellow brick version is lined with exits and intersections, as well as unscrupulous scammers waiting for a chance to swindle developers out of their time, work, and money. For those following it, a little homework goes a long way in building a positive outcome. Active participants in the Michigan Inventors Coalition are urged to learn about the inventing process, figure out if their idea has already been invented, and rely on a group of like-minded creators to keep momentum going.
"Whether it's an invention or entrepreneurship or whatever you're building, you need a group and you need a village of inventors to keep it within the lines," he says. "The value of the inventor group is, you're going to meet someone there who's already had a patent issued. You're going to be able to go to an inventor who's already gone through the process. And not just one inventor. We've been around for so long, we've had many inventors go through the whole inventing process, get their patent issued, and then they turn around and sell their inventions."
For product developers, or anyone with a clever idea, inventor groups of any size provide an advantage. If someone else has already "done it," they're usually happy to share how it was attempted, how it was done, and more importantly, how to avoid making the same mistakes. The State of Michigan and the United States Patent Trademark Office offer a number of free resources to aspiring inventors, as well. The patent process and trademark basics are distilled down into a series of simple steps any inventor can follow.
The government resources won't tell you what you should make, or offer legal advice, but they can explain the quickest way to get it to market.
Ideas may start off small, but even in the case of something like the Kooty Key, they can snowball into a huge windfall for an inventor.
Karen Smoots' Green Glove Dryer started out as a simple tool to stop bacteria from growing in her family's winter gloves after they were washed or worn out in the snow. Thanks to a little help from her local inventors group, Smoots' invention caught the attention of Consumers Energy, who is now helping K-5 Elementary schools throughout Michigan improve hygiene with this innovative, new energy-free technology.
Finkler says there are plenty more examples of successful inventions saving people money, just like Smoots is helping winter gloves last more than a single season. Products like those outnumber the billion-dollar breakthroughs, but that's not to say you can't hit it big with a single idea.
Certainly, some people do.
Just a few miles north of Grand Rapids, baby food was created by the Gerber company in Fremont in 1928. A few more miles to the south, the hospital bed was the idea of Dr. Homer Stryker, of Kalamazoo. And Battle Creek holds the title of Cereal Capital of the World for W.K. Kellogg's flaky inspiration.
But they worked at it, for decades in some cases, and with much less guidance. Had Gerber, Stryker, and Kellogg put off their pursuits for another century or so, they would have found much more competition, no shortage of which may have studied in West Michigan.
Can inventors innovate?
At the Richard M. and Helen DeVos Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation within the Grand Valley State University Seidman College of Business, students can find help with their most inventive ideas. The center is directed by Shorouq Almallah, who draws a line between invention and innovation. She has spent a majority of her time at the Center working with the former.
Shorouq Almallah“Invention is creating a new product or process for the first time, and innovation is about taking something that already exists and making it better,” Almallah says. “I would say, throughout my years at GVSU, I have seen and worked with a lot of innovators as opposed to inventors. Some prospective entrepreneurs think they have to invent something new to start a new business or venture. The reality, however, is that there are many opportunities to take something that already exists and make it cheaper, better, or faster.”
In contrast to obsessing over a business opportunity, successful entrepreneurs are often more excited about the unique qualities of their particular product or service idea, Almallah says.
“If we look at Airbnb, or Uber, these companies are not inventors, but they were innovators,” she says. “Airbnb was not successful because they invented a new hotel or accommodations, but rather because they got a good pulse on what customers need and want and were able to innovate and disrupt an industry that otherwise would be impossible to penetrate given the hold big chain hotels have on the market.”
Almallah’s examples concentrated on serving a customer first, before a product was ever invented. This is a critical step that startups often lack.
“Customer discovery, customer validation, and creation are going to be the key differentiators to help both innovators and inventors grow a product or service from an idea to a business,” she says.
As CEI director, Almallah says she is constantly looking at gaps and problems within her work or home environment to see how to leverage her skill set and resources to help address those gaps. Between the physical and co-working spaces, training programs, educational workshops, financial support, and wide range of networking opportunities, there has never been a better time to pursue the same skills, she says, particularly through the CEI.
The center offers a combination of curricular and co-curricular programs for students and budding entrepreneurs to develop the entrepreneurial mindset and skill set, and to access opportunities outside the classroom for hands-on and experiential activities to develop ideas and explore their commercialization potential. Various community initiatives, meanwhile, create economic and social value by providing access to capital and resources, addressing socio-economic and racial gaps in the entrepreneurial ecosystem:
The Teen Entrepreneur Summer Academy (TESA) is a hands-on, week-long day camp for local high school students to immerse themselves in the entrepreneurial experience by learning about problem solving, opportunity recognition, creativity, teamwork, and conceptualizing an idea for a business.
The Michigan Veteran Entrepreneur-LAB (MVE-Lab) is a program that is offered in an effort to give U.S. veterans and military families the skills, knowledge, opportunities, and funding they need to develop and launch a business.
The LendGR program, a microloan and technical assistance program, provides small dollar loans to low-income borrowers who may not meet the criteria for traditional bank lending. GVSU students offer technical assistance to the entrepreneurs to help them develop or strengthen their business plans, marketing plans, and conduct market research to build their businesses.
Almallah admits, she has always been more of an innovator herself, rather than an inventor, having received a “well-rounded” liberal arts education, augmented by an eclectic educational background of English literature and information technology. This provided the necessary skills of communication, creativity, problem solving, and project management, which allow her to grow as an intrepreneur, a term coined in 1992 that describes someone “within a large corporation who takes direct responsibility for turning an idea into a profitable finished product through assertive risk-taking and innovation.”
Having a business-minded family didn’t hurt, either.
“While I have not started my own business, I am an intrepreneur and have successfully applied the entrepreneurial mindset and skill set to innovate, transform, and develop new products and services in the region to serve the entrepreneurial community,” Almallah says. “Every single program that I launched at GVSU was a startup in and of itself!”
How inventors become entrepreneurs
Alongside Almallah at the CEI, Clinical Faculty member Tim Syfert and a host of other business founders train entrepreneurs on pitching their ideas to investors and developing business plans.
Syfert doesn't claim to know the specific set of traits or characteristics that make a successful inventor or entrepreneur. He doesn't think these exist and still wrestles with the argument of nature versus nurture. Whether or not someone is born with the right skills is irrelevant if they can be trained, however.
Tim Syfert"One thing that has to be there is curiosity, an inquiring mind to solve problems," Syfert says. "Then, persistence and tenacity are critical for any entrepreneur."
Like Finkler's yellow brick road, the path to success has a few bumps along the way. Some may see those bumps as a sign of failure — a dead end. However, there are always opportunities for the persistent.
"With tenacity and persistence, I can hop over it, I can go around it," he says. "I can engage others in conversation and maybe we can figure it out through my network."
Other challenges become more apparent as an entrepreneur's network grows. Is it wise to share a potentially explosive idea with a fellow inventor, for example, or will they simply turn it into something more marketable first?
"A lot of times entrepreneurs say, I'm not going to share my idea because I’m afraid someone else is going to steal it," Syfert says. "And I think that that's almost a premonition that the idea is going to fail because you really do need input from others, you really do need feedback on your idea."
In his classes, Syfert approaches this dilemma, quite appropriately, through the work of someone else. He recommends Austin Kleon's book, "Steal Like an Artist."
"Very few ideas are original," Syfert says. "Most of the time, it's a variation on a theme. It may not be obvious, but usually, it's something like that. I encourage our entrepreneurs to put forth the kind of energy that says, 'I'm curious, I'm open for input, I'm open for feedback.' Typically what happens is, doors begin to open for them because of the way that they present their idea, the way that they carry themselves, and the way they engage with other people."
In asking for help, whether it's from the clinical faculty at GVSU, a fellow inventor at a meetup, or even just a clever uncle, the worst they can say is “No.” And even those are in short supply wherever honest enthusiasm and curiosity are involved.
"If you exude that enthusiasm and that curiosity, people want to naturally help you," Syfert says. "Most of the time people don't like saying 'No,' and if they don't have an answer, then they can recommend other people that they know that might be able to help. If you listen, that's only going to help you in the long run."
During their years at GVSU, Almallah, Syfert, and other business leaders at the CEI have seen their students launch a number of successful projects.
Soletics, a technology design company that's bringing relief and mobility to people suffering from Raynaud's disease with their innovative heated gloves, was formed by a group of students who didn't even know each other at first. CEO Michael Kurley was a mathematics major when their group was first formed, joining business students Lindsay Noonan and Vanessa Gore. They pitched their idea at a business competition, won the contest, and got an A on their final entrepreneurship exam in Syfert's class.
Soletics creates specialty heated gloves for Raynaud's Disease.
As a senior at GVSU studying management and marketing and president of the university's collegiate entrepreneurs organization chapter, Zoe Bruyn started Stir It Up Bakery. Her premium bakery employs people with disabilities and special needs. She developed the bakery concept and the innovative training framework that equips her employees with the skills they need to bake custom cookies and grow the business.
Stir It Up cookies are now showcased at the Bridge Street Market.
"She's sold so many that she's moving on to the next phase of her business," Syfert says. "She's beginning to search for a place to actually bake the cookies through her own storefront."
Jordan VanderHam and Jared Seifert, two other students from GVSU, took home $30,000 from a Weber State University competition in March 2018 for their invention that helps those with asthma and cold weather industrial workers breathe easier.
The original 3D printed Orindi Mask warms up cold air before it is inhaled, making life and work much easier on those in cold air conditions.
VanderHam and Seifert have taken their mask to several other competitions since then, winning close to $200,000 in what Syfert calls "free money."
"I think it's an exciting time to be an entrepreneur," Syfert says. "It's happening. It may not be in sexy businesses like technology and software, but there are all sorts of students who are pursuing their ideas ... and winning."
GVSU students have proven themselves an industrious bunch, and a force to be reckoned with at business competitions.
"And what's really cool is many of the competitions that we go to, we go up against U of M, and Grand Valley wins," Syfert laughs. "It's nice to see that such a great business school can be beat by a regional second-tier school like Grand Valley."
From the Kooty Key to medical masks, and far beyond, it’s apparent that not all those who invent are bound to succeed, and not all those who have succeeded do so on the steam of their own inventions. For an idea to truly take hold, it needs to solve a problem, it needs to be easy to use, and it needs to be memorable.
If you are looking for inspiration, West Michigan is the place to find it.
Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected].
Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.