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Posted: January 01, 2013

Invention convention

Innovators put new products and concepts to test at annual DaVinci Showcase

Eric Peterson

With inventions ranging from bamboo sunglasses to thermoelectric generators, the 2012 DaVinci Institute Inventor Showcase is coming off of a banner event. Held on a blustery day last October at the Denver Mart, the annual event featured 88 inventors showing off their latest concepts, prototypes and finished products.

"This is twice as big as last year," said Thomas Frey, founder and CEO of the DaVinci Institute, a futurist-leaning nonprofit based in Louisville. "We worked very hard to promote it." New for 2012 was a new scoring program developed by Frey’s son Darby Frey, a software engineer with Groupon. "We just input the judges’ scores and voila!" Frey said.

The keynote speaker was Oliver Kuttner, CEO of Edison2, winner of the X Prize for making a vehicle that got 100 miles per gallon, or the same energy equivalent. The team behind his gasoline-powered VLC (Very Light Car) rethought the car and ended up getting a whopping 129 miles per gallon.

"The low-hanging fruit is to build a more efficient car," Kuttner said. "All kinds of cool stuff happens when your car is smaller." Because the chassis is lighter, the engine can be smaller, which in turns makes for an even lighter vehicle, he explained, confidently adding, "I am aware that people like me who want to be a car company always fail. I will be the exception."

Featured speaker Teresa Stanek Rea, deputy director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, focused her remarks on the coming Denver patent office, slated to open near downtown in November 2013. The office is the result of the America Invent Acts, signed into law in September 2011 and establishing satellite patent offices in Denver, Dallas-Fort Worth and Silicon Valley.

She described each new office’s exact business model as a work in progress, but it will directly relate to the local and regional industries and needs. "We’re still examining that at this time," she said, estimating a staff of about 100 examiners plus several patent judges. "We’re going to be open for business and we’re going to work hard to communicate with inventors."

INVENTOR OF THE YEAR:

Power Practical, Salt Lake City,

www.thepowerpot.com

Thermoelectric experts David Toledo and Paul Slusser invented the PowerPot in their spare time. "There were no personal power generators on the market," said Caleb Light, the company’s CFO. The PowerPot uses the heat of boiling water to generate electricity and deliver it via a USB cable to a waiting cell phone or battery.

The founders turned to Kickstarter for initial funding in April 2012, and it led to 850 preorders. "We had a 30-day campaign trying to raise $50,000," Light said. "We ended up with $126,000." For 2013, the plan is to make a big push into the brick-and-mortar retail world, with a focus on the outdoor market, fishing and hunting, and emergency preparedness. The product currently sells for $149 on the company’s website.

But there is also a real need for power generators in the Third World, where access to electricity is very limited. In Uganda, 10 pilot users cook for three hours a day and use PowerPots to charge cell phones and power lighting. "The feedback is they work perfectly," Light said. "They use them every day over an open fire." The plan is to have 100 units in the field by the end of 2013 and a broader push in 2014.

Another Power Practical invention is in the works, Light added; the plan is to launch it via Kickstarter by the end of 2012.

CONSUMER PRODUCT OF THE YEAR:

Cloud Dome, Lafayette,

www.clouddome.com

A longtime jewelry designer, Cindy Lichfield invented the Cloud Dome in 2001 because of a problem of her own. "I had a terrible time taking pictures of jewelry," she said. "I cut off the bottom of a milk carton and taped it to my $1,000 Nikon with duct tape. It didn’t look too professional." But it worked, diffusing light to the pure white glow that’s ideal for photography, and soon Lichfield made a prototype in her father’s shop, which her patent attorney used to take a picture that helped him win a case less than a week after she first called. After it went to production the next year, it was a hit with the eBay crowd.

In response to the iPhone boom, Lichfield co-invented the smaller, smartphone-friendly Nimbus Cloud Dome with Dave Burchette in 2012. "I find it works well to collaborate on ideas like this," she said. "I was kind of stuck and he came up with something that was even better."

Besides jewelry sellers, forensic photographers have taken to the original, and roofers have emerged as a market for the Nimbus as a means of documenting hail damage. "You get up there and it’s really bright," Lichfield explained.

COMMERCIAL PRODUCT OF THE YEAR:

SafeAwake, Columbia, Md.,

www.safeawake.com

"What’s the most effective way to wake a sleeping person?" asked Tim Shaffer, president and CEO of SafeAwake. "Low frequency, high-decibel sound and tactile stimulation with an intermittent pattern." Thus the SafeAwake delivers an ultra-low sound that’s audible even to the hard of hearing and vibrates users out of their slumber with a "bed shaker" between the mattress and the box spring.

Through research, Dr. Richard Roby and Dr. Michael Klassen came up with SafeAwake’s technology, initially with fire safety for the deaf in mind, launching the company with an SBIR grant in 1998. Shaffer brought his manufacturing background to the company in 2008.

Now Shaffer is eyeing not only the market for the deaf and hard of hearing. In 2010, the National Fire Protection Agency rewrote the building code for fire alarms in commercial sleeping rooms (i.e. hotels, dormitories and the like). As more states adopt tougher standards, there is an opportunity for SafeAwake to become the market standard. "We’ve got several irons in the fire," Shaffer said. "A lot of that will come to fruition in 2013 and 2014."

FOOD & DRINK PRODUCT OF THE YEAR:

Bee Nut Free, Silverthorne,

www.beenutfree.com

A 20-year Summit County resident, Jo-Anne Tyson started Bee Nut Free in 2011 largely in response to her son Spencer’s nut allergies. "We were grocery shopping together looking for some snacks he could bring with him to a party," she said. "After the sixth or seventh product, we gave up." Now 14, Spencer then served as her "No. 1 guinea pig" as she developed a granola bar free of the "big eight" allergens: peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, fish, shellfish and soybeans. After a May 2012 launch, the Bee Nut Free catalog now has six products, including granola bars, energy bars, cookies and trail mix; a "chia-seed energy ball" and a peanut-free peanut-butter-style cup are in the works.

The market is huge. "There are 70 million people with food allergies and intolerances in the U.S.," Tyson said. But it’s not just about profits. "My main intention is to make a difference in people’s lives." After getting them on the shelves at 15 stores in Summit and Eagle counties in 2012, Tyson is pushing to get Bee Nut Free products on the shelves of the major natural food chains in 2013. "Our plan is to grow sensibly and smartly," she said.

SOFTWARE PRODUCT OF THE YEAR:

Megathread, Boulder,

www.megathread.com

After studying 3-D animation in Vancouver, B.C., Brian Assam took the path less beaten to his family’s farm in South Dakota. "Through that process, I learned the self-organizing principles of nature," he said. "I applied that to the Web, and I eventually came up with my own theory called ‘social synthesis.’"

Megathread is Assam’s theory in action. Websites with communities use Megathread’s plug-in that allows users to generate universal credentials in just about any subject from fine art to ice hockey and follow the conversations attracting the highest-level users. "It’s such a simple tool, but its benefits are exponential," he said. "Those communities with higher-level discussions will elevate themselves." The market is "basically any online community," Assam added, pinpointing online education as the biggest potential area of impact.

Assam moved to Boulder last year, drawn by its entrepreneurial culture, and launched Megathread at the Inventors Showcase. "No site is right now reaching its full potential audience, but with Megathread they could," he touted.

HONORARY EDUCATION INNOVATION AWARD:

Universal Entrepreneur Education System, Regis University, Denver,

www.regis.edu / www.sullivanchair.org

When longtime entrepreneur Karl Dakin joined Regis as the Sullivan Endowed Chair in Free Enterprise in late 2011, he charted a course to create a next-generation entrepreneurial curriculum. "Most people are familiar with taking chemistry, where you have a lecture in the classroom, then a lab," he said. "In business, it’s kind of different. One of the problems a lot of entrepreneurs have is they jump out without preparation and knowledge."

Dakin’s solution, tentatively titled the Universal Entrepreneur Education System, "is an online architecture using software objects for the different components of a learning system," he explained. The "Powerpoint-style presentations" incorporate an introduction, links to text and video, and an exercise to approximate a classroom experience.

"Each block stands on its own," said Dakin, noting that an instructor could aggregate two to four blocks into a workshop or 10 to 30 into a class. Thus far, Dakin and his collaborators at Regis have created about 25 such modules, each covering a different topic that’s relevant to aspiring entrepreneurs. But he said he sees a market that extends far beyond the Regis campus. "My goal is to start retailing them sometime this spring," he said. Retail price will likely be $25 per module or less.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Gate Glide (Centennial, www.gate-glide.com):

This gadget prevents "gate sag" transferring the gate’s weight to the post.

Grace Skis (Denver, www.skigrace.com):

These big-mountain skis have bamboo veneers and cores, shown to be stronger than more prevalent materials.

iExpander (Chicago, www.corrtech.com):

Recently funded on Kickstarter, this is an iPhone case with a built-in flash, as well as more memory and battery life.

Maggie’s WiseCakes
(
www.maggieswisecakes.com):

These gourmet cakes are sold ready to make in boxes that include cake and glaze mixes as well as a pan.

Denver-based writer Eric Peterson is the author of Frommer's Colorado, Frommer's Montana & Wyoming, Frommer's Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks and the Ramble series of guidebooks, featuring first-person travelogues covering everything from atomic landmarks in New Mexico to celebrity gone wrong in Hollywood. Peterson has also recently written about backpacking in Yosemite, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and downhill skiing in Colorado for such publications as Denver's Westword and The New York Daily News. He can be reached at Eptcb126@msn.com

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