Inventor Innovation

INTEGRATING IDEAS AND INNOVATION TO INVENTION

We profile three of the inventors contributing to the vibrant buzz of innovation in the region

Story by Sean Fitzgerald, Publisher

Like luring new business to the region or helping existing businesses grow, a third and often overlooked cog of economic development is to organically grow opportunity through innovation.

It sounds easier to say than to practice, but the act of innovating and creating ideas fosters the ability to grow and sustain entrepreneurial activity through new products and services.

Innovation isn’t just a characteristic that automatically surfaces within an organization, said Cheryl Perkins, president and founder of Neenah-based InnovationEdge, a global innovation consulting firm. She’s worked with firms close to home and on the other side of the globe, and notes that universally a foundation for innovation must be rooted in the organization’s culture. What does that mean? Primarily to place the right balance of technicians and creative staff together, and place them in an environment where innovation isn’t stifled.

“There’s a lot of fatigue that can be created around innovation if the culture isn’t managed,” Perkins warned. “Let the people and the environment allow for constant value and continuous learning.”

Ultimately, innovation is all about bringing back additional value to stakeholders in an initiative. And believe it or not, there is a vibrant buzz of innovation taking place here in northeast Wisconsin.

The recently released New North-UW Oshkosh Regional Entrepreneurial Index indicated the number of patents or trademarks granted in the New North region has hovered between 800 to 1,000 per year for each of the past three years. That’s a critical factor in growing new business opportunities and new jobs in the region, said Bob O’Donnell, director of the Small Business Development Center at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and the administrator of the index.

“We have to look at intellectual property creation as one of the key aspects to encouraging entrepreneurship,” O’Donnell said.

The New North has experienced a steady growth in resources available to innovators in the region during the past decade. Through the evolution of the Wisconsin Inventors Network, Wisconsin Entrepreneurs Network and the Fab Lab at Fox Valley Technical College, inventors and innovators have been able to move beyond the concept of their ideas and start making tangible progress toward marketability.

FVTC’s 3-year-old Fab Lab not only offers state-of-the-art equipment to help the inexperienced inventor develop a working prototype, but the technical expertise through its staff to navigate all aspects of an inventor’s rugged journey from cocktail napkin drawings to the marketplace.

“We like to say that we can advance the invention process by bringing together innovation, technology and resources,” said Herb Goetz, an industrial designer through the Fab Lab, which is part of a greater network of more than 70 similar Fab Labs around the globe. In its past three years, the Fox Valley Fab Lab has worked with close to 400 inventors, helped in the development of 82 prototypes and holds 11 co-patents along with the inventors of whom they made a significant intellectual contribution toward the advancement of their product.

Invention certainly is a process, as is demonstrated by the three inventors whose profiles follow. Through their diligence and persistence, the innovation they’ve brought to their respective fields might just help to grow the region’s economy one idea at a time.

Landing the big one

A former industrial electrician turned fishing charter, bait shop and resort owner, Louis Woods never imagined he’d develop a product that would literally change the lives of disabled anglers who’d lost the ability to enjoy a day on a boat casting a line.

Following several charter trips on the Wolf River system with a Chicago family that brought along their disabled child who was unable to hold a fishing pole, Woods offered to buy the boy a special brace to allow him to hold a pole and enjoy the feel of a tug on the other end of the line. But Woods couldn’t find a suitable brace, so he cobbled one together using fabric. It became the first prototype for his Enjoy the Fight brace.

Later in 2008, Woods would bring his fishing brace concept into the Fox Valley Fab Lab, where he received assistance on design modifications that eventually led to a working prototype. That’s the crossroads at which Woods had to make a significant financial commitment toward moving his concept forward – he’d spent a few thousand dollars with a patent attorney and some design consulting, but now he was facing a five-figure investment to research and develop a line of sample product he could test in the market.

Moving forward with an investment he estimates at $18,000 to $20,000, Woods contracted with an injection-mold plastics manufacturer to test several different molds before identifying the perfect shape and process for holding the brace in place. Woods ponied up the funds for an initial run of 1,000 units with that mold, finally giving him a product to test, market and sell.

The Enjoy the Fight brace “allows people to hold the fishing pole without any pain or exhaustion,” Woods said, returning an enjoyable hobby to many who thought they might have lost the opportunity to go fishing. It’s been a hit with many who’ve tried it out.

“We took it up to the Fishing Has No Boundaries (an organization assisting anglers with disabilities) national conference in Hayward for them to use and they loved it,” Woods said, indicating he sold every single brace he brought along to the event.

To date, Woods has sold more than 750 of his initial run of 1,000 sample fishing braces, primarily through sports shows he’s attended to promote his resort and fishing charter service, as well as online sales through his Web site.

But he’s primarily used the proceeds of his Fremont-based Wolf River Outfitters bait shop, resort and charter fishing service to help offset his investments in developing the Enjoy the Fight brace. Woods acknowledged he’s been taking the process slowly – intentionally – to avoid many of the frustrations he experienced when first starting on his inventor’s journey.

In retrospect, Woods said he would have taken more time researching and modifying the initial prototypes to get everything squared away before spending the money to develop the mold and ultimately fabricate the product.

“I made a big gamble on spending all that money on the product right away,” Woods said.

He’s also switched patent attorneys and had to considerably revise the patent for which he applied. He currently has a provisional patent, and expects it might take another 12 months through the U.S. Patent Office to become official.

In the meantime, Woods is planning a second manufacturing run of his product. This time, he’s looking at putting some professional packaging together, obtaining a UPC code, and investigating retail channels which might make sense for distributing the brace.

Moving health plan design forward

The job of group health insurance program brokers has become increasingly more complex in the past two decades as sharply rising health care costs have driven employers toward a wide variety of options for maintaining benefits such as consumer-driven plans, health savings accounts and corporate wellness initiatives. As a result, there’s become an almost unlimited number of cost variables which ultimately dictate the price of a given group plan for employer benefits directors to consider, yet the insurance professionals selling health plan products are still using a decades-old technology to compare plan models and pricing.

For years it’s been eating away at Dan Morrill, the vice president of employee benefits for Oshkosh-based Servant Insurance. He’s been selling health insurance benefit solutions to employers for more than a decade, and said presentations on health plan options become more complex and robust than contemporary technology can handle.

“We had taken generic spreadsheets as far as we could go,” Morrill said. “We had retrofitted an old technology and used it as best we could.”

During the past three years, Morrill was struck with the idea of developing an entirely new software – one that wasn’t just an Excel spreadsheet – that employer benefits agents could bring along to renewals and sales calls to more efficiently outline plan options and costs almost instantly by manipulating the hundreds of variables that go into formulating a complex consumer-driven health insurance plan. Along with Servant Insurance managing partners Mark Priestaf and Wayne Weese and computer programmer Ryan Hatch, the partnership worked 18 months to develop Dynamic Benefit Systems, a revolutionary software that models and delivers unique consumer-driven health plan designs. The partners spun off a new company, monikered after its software as Dynamic Benefit Systems, of which Morrill serves as president and co-founder.

The software launched in April 2010 to a market of insurance benefit specialists hungry for a more efficient solution for writing more group health plan policies. In the short time since the software was released, Morrill was recognized with a 2010 Innovator Award from CDHC (Consumer Driven Health Care) Solutions, a trade publication for health and benefits management professionals.

While the software is designed to be used by health care benefits brokers, the DBS group is finding interest in its product from larger employers and even health care purchasing cooperatives. In fact, Morrill believes its capabilities are robust enough to market to third-party benefits administrators or even to insurance carriers themselves.

“It’s much more than a premium calculator,” Morrill said. “Ideally a carrier could use this to deliver its renewals.”

Since the unique intellectual property behind the software is its high-powered math engine and other applications which connect the user to its real-time plan design magic, the Dynamic Benefit Systems partners have several patents filed or pending. The group is also looking to trademark certain terminology associated with the new and more robust capabilities of its product.

The hours and expense of working with attorneys to protect these critical features wasn’t completely unexpected, Morrill acknowledged, but has amounted to more than what was originally projected.

Additional challenges involved being flexible enough to adapt the software to accommodate different nuances of health plan design that tend to be more prominent in other areas of the country. Morrill and his partners have primarily sold group health care insurance in Wisconsin, so the initial software configuration was based upon plan design as they were familiar with it. As the Dynamic Benefit Systems team began to market its product to agencies on either coast, they quickly learned modifications would be required to meet the varying guidelines imposed by insurance commissioners from state to state.

The DBS group also knew the best way to reach their market was to allow potential customers to try before they buy. But even the trial version requires some training from Morrill and the DBS team in order to use optimally. That takes additional time. And money.

“You have to invest some up-front cost in training people to use the free trial version,” Morrill said.

The goal, Morrill said, is that the software will help the entire consumer-driven health care model take off like wildfire with employer groups across the country. And when that happens, Dynamic Benefit Systems will be there making it simpler for everyone.

Getting out of a snarl

For those who braid their hair regularly and often, they know that when they make the decision to change the style of their hair, unraveling those braids and weaves can take several hours, and even the better part of an entire day.

About 12 years ago, Lillian Stricklen had sought out faster ways of removing the braids from her friends’ hair without drying out, tangling or pulling the hair. She’d tried every possible product she could find on the market, and even tried home remedies such as a fork or a ballpoint pen. Nothing worked as well as she hoped.

A former nail technician herself with an interest in working with hair, Stricklen came up with an idea for a braid pik that could be used by hair stylists and consumers alike. After developing some rough concept sketches in 2004, Stricklen invested her own money to pursue a patent and hire an engineer to provide professional design to her rough sketches. 

After getting involved with the Wisconsin Inventors network, Stricklen would also find the Fox Valley Fab Lab and Herb Goetz for assistance developing the initial prototype and modifying it into an affordable, functional and marketable tool.

Now that Stricklen has developed her first workable Braid Piks, she’s nearing the reality of going to market. The Braid Pik works about five to seven times faster than traditional ways of removing braids. Stricklen said the product could be a real boon to professional hair stylists, who charge clients not only for braiding their hair, but also if they have to unravel the braids as well.

“If they use this tool, they can turn their chairs around faster and make more money,” Stricklen said.

For its ease of use and affordability, the Braid Pik received the People’s Choice Award at the 2010 Wisconsin Entrepreneurs Conference.

The Braid Pik isn’t quite ready for the market, but that’s Stricklen’s next step. She plans to have a line of Braid Piks manufactured in the near future to prepare for the retail market and sell through her company’s Web site.

Stricklen said the most uplifting part of her invention journey has been connecting with other inventors and invention experts.

“It’s all about getting with the right people,” she said. She readily admits she would not have the Braid Pik to the stage where it is if not for the help and guidance of that network.