The U.S. Commerce Dept.'s NIST/MEP Network offers great product ideas whose savvy inventors need backing. Here's a look at a few of my favorites
I'm tired of the doom and gloom on the business pages. It's time to get the can-do spirit cranking again and start thinking about what is possible instead of about how bad things are. In my work with the National Institute of Technology Manufacturing Extension Partnership, I've been meeting hundreds of inspiring entrepreneurs. Here are three of the most impressive innovations I've found, along with some advice for their inventors. (More details about these companies are available at USAInnovation.org.)
• In Scotland, recent university graduates James Brown and Amanda Jones have created the ROSS Water System, a sort of wheelbarrow for water. The user rolls it to the water source and fills it with up to 50 liters. As it's being pushed home, the unit filters the water using energy from the turning wheels.
More than a billion people don't have access to safe drinking water, and Brown and Jones think more than half of them can benefit from their system. My research team thinks this could be a billion-dollar company. So far, though, Brown and Jones have zero sales.
MY ADVICE: Get out and get going. Make a few of the water systems, by hand if necessary, sell them, and prove that this is as big a wow as it sounds. Nothing is more convincing to potential investors than real-world results.
• John Rutty, a former pilot who lives in Philadelphia, is 77 years old and is experiencing increasing back pain. But he has discovered that if he hangs by his arms from a tree limb, applying a kind of homegrown traction, he can dramatically reduce the pain in his back. This inspired him to invent and patent the Back Jack. It attaches to a chair and helps keep the back aligned while transferring weight from the spine to the chair. John has built and tested prototypes and has even collected testimonials, including one from an orthopedist who used it on a cross-country road trip. My research team estimates that this could be a $10 million business. After proving the concept in the marketplace, Rutty and his son could license the product to a larger company. We forecast that a large company could do as much as $100 million in sales.
MY ADVICE: Keep inventory as low as possible. I've seen too many entrepreneurs fill their garages with inventory and then have no money or energy for sales or marketing.
• San Francisco's Donald Anderson spent his career as a chemical engineer. He's 81 years old and has two inventions that are engineering wonders.
The first is the Lafayette Sweet Seat. It's a toilet seat that removes odors—totally. Unlike exhaust fans that spread the smell or sprays that cover it, Anderson's invention captures, dissolves, and flushes away the stink. The technology is the same as that used to reduce the odors from commercial smokestacks. We forecast that the Sweet Seat could be a $300 million business.
MY ADVICE: Anderson needs to find a partner, preferably one with a sense of humor. While his invention's benefits are huge, at the end of the day it is a stink-reducing toilet seat. To find investors and partners, he might place prototypes in strategically located bathrooms, complete with signage. He should take a funny invention and have fun with it.
Anderson's second invention is a new type of power system for electric vehicles—compressed hydrogen. While interest is strong in Asia, he has yet to generate any takers here. My hope is that this article will excite someone in this country to reach out to Anderson before his technology ends up overseas.
To read all of Doug Hall's columns, go to businessweek.com/go/sb/hall
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