Brainstorms brought to life
The DaVinci Institute’s annual Inventors Showcase featured 39 inventors showcasing all manner of creations, from audio-enabled greeting cards to jewelry to roving robots inspecting the show floor.
Highlighting the daylong event in Broomfield on Nov. 13 was keynote speaker Robert Stoll of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Stoll got the crowd fired up when he discussed the prospects of a Mile-High patent office. “We’re actually now looking at a nationwide work force,” he said. “If a pilot works, there will be several other offices, and one of the places we’re interested in is Denver.”
Before the grand finale – the presentation of the awards to the following winners – DaVinci Institute honcho Thomas Frey summed up his perspective: “People have invested a great deal of their lives and life savings into the amazing creations that are on display here.”
INVENTOR OF THE YEAR
Jerome Rifkin, Tensegrity Prosthetics
Jerome Rifkin’s inspiration for Tensegrity came in 1996 in the form of a collision with an SUV driven by a personal-injury attorney. As Rifkin was on a bike, he sustained serious injuries and used a cane for more than five years.
When it came to rehabilitation, Rifkin’s hypermobile spine and duck-footed gait didn’t help things. So he relearned how to walk during the rehab process, and learned all about the mechanics of ankle and foot motion. “That’s where the inspiration came from,” Rifkin said. “I learned what ankles were supposed to be doing.”
It took almost a decade for Rifkin to wrangle a settlement out of the attorney. When he finally did in 2002 – after relocating to Boulder in 1999 – it allowed him to scale back his day job in health-care IT to 30 hours a week and dedicate extra time to reinventing the prosthetic foot with Tensegrity. In 2005, Rifkin landed a grant from the National Center for Medical Rehabilitation Research, allowing him to quit his day job and focus on Tensegrity full-time.
Normal ankles move on all three axes, and that mobility allows people to walk on variable terrain. “There are three easy-to-get rotations my foot does that nothing else on the market does,” Rifkin said. The status-quo technology for prosthetic feet, which dates from the 1950s, is cheap and simple, but lacks the feel of a real foot because it does not move on all three axes. Prostheses made of carbon fiber followed in the 1980s, but “it’s nothing like a human ankle,” Rifkin said. “It’s kind of like a springboard.”
Tensegrity’s foot features “functional stops to the range of motion that keep it from bending too far,” says Rifkin, describing three Tensegrity prostheses that fall into a good/better/best stratification. Noting that 80 percent of the prosthetic-foot market is diabetic amputees, Rifkin adapted his technology to hit the price point allowed by relevant insurance reimbursements.
Thus, the least expensive of the three features ankle motion but no foot motion that is “competitive with the market that’s already out there.”
A more rugged version of this basic model is the “better.” The “best” is the flagship, featuring a full range of both ankle and foot motion. Both prosthetists and patients like Tensegrity products because they take less time to fit than other prosthetics. The basic model is in production in Colorado and will hit the market in early 2011, and the flagship should debut in the spring.
COMMERCIAL PRODUCT OF THE YEAR
Retrofit Street Series and Universal Street Series LED Lights, invented by Ian Osborn of the Wild Ideas Light Co. (Littleton)
Ian Osborn worked with audiovisual systems and Internet backbone infrastructure before he shifted his career course to focus on light-emitting diodes (LEDs), in the process launching Wild Ideas Light Co. in 2004.
After making a kid’s night light, Osborn recognized the potential of LEDs and started experimenting with fixture design. “I kept putting LEDs into places where people said, ‘That’s not possible,'” he said. “I kept making the impossible possible.”
He’s since designed LED systems for hand-blown chandeliers, hospital kitchens, streetlights and numerous other commercial and residential applications. His award-winning Retrofit Street Series enables installation of new LED fixtures into old fluorescent streetlights. “Now you’re going from a two-year light bulb to a 10- to 17-year cycle,” Osborn said. “You’re also saving 50 percent to 75 percent of the energy draw for the same amount of light – or greater.”
With lower energy and maintenance bills, Wild Ideas’ LED systems can pay for themselves in a matter of years, not decades. “If you’re paying 6 cents a kilowatt-hour or more, your ROI is three years or less,” touted Osborn.
He credited the Inventors’ Roundtable in Denver for helping him with his patent applications. “I probably would have been floundering without it,” he said. “They have been key for me.”
CONSUMER PRODUCT OF THE YEAR
Applecore Cord Organizer, invented by Robin Peng, principal of Design Engine (Sandy, Utah)
Lured by superlative snowboarding, Robin Peng traded Dearborn, Mich., for Utah in 1992, leaving his job as a concept-car designer at Ford to launch a design startup.
Two decades later, Design Engine has completed projects for Logitech, Dell, the U.S. Army and other name-brand clients, and has a shelf full of awards. “All those awards don’t mean a thing without a financial return,” said Peng, laying out the strategic shift from a design-only firm into manufacturing. “We needed to take something from conceptualization to commercialization and come out in the black.”
That something is the Applecore Cord Organizer, which Peng invented as a response to too many gadgets with too many cords: Simply wrap any excess cord around an Applecore, and no more detangling. Launched in 2007, the core-shaped, spool-like product has indeed come out in the black, returning more than 10 times the initial investment. The product even earned Steve Jobs’ praise, not a cease-and-desist letter from Apple. At the Applecore launch at the 2007 MacWorld, Jobs inspected one and was heard to murmur, “That’s genius,” as he walked away from the booth.
“We did some math,” Peng said of the invention, which comes in three sizes and sells for $2.49 to $4.99. “A person can save 60 seconds a day using Applecore. That works out to 17 days in your life you cannot deal with tangled cords.”
The eight-employee Design Engine has five additional inventions in the works, including a first-aid kit and a mobile audio device. Peng sounds smitten with the idea of opening a second Design Engine office in Boulder or Denver as a product launchpad. “We need to expand,” he says. “At the show, we had a couple of design firms say to us, ‘We need to collaborate. Call us.'”
SOFTWARE PRODUCT OF THE YEAR
HYBIR, invented by Rasch Young, CEO of HYBIR
“I started working with computers when I was a high school freshman in 1980,” says HYBIR CEO Rasch Young of his 30-year career in information technology. Before launching HYBIR in 2006, he worked for Evolving Systems developing number-portability software.
In 2002, Evolving “outsourced to India, so we had a situation where my whole team was laid off,” he says. Young and his colleague Craig Ross made lemons out of lemonade and started a consulting firm, Retreon, and landed a plum account in Cricket before selling the company in 2006.
Young seized upon the concept of a cryptographic hash when the duo launched HYBIR, a hexadecimal code most associated with security software. Applying the concept to data backup, he realized that the improvements in efficiency were significant if the system recognized duplicate data.
“I have a lot of PCs, and I need to back them up,” he says. “But I don’t need 10 backups of Windows. If only we had a way to identify the important data on a machine and only back that data up.” He makes an analogy: “It’s much easier to send a grocery list than send the whole store.”
HYBIR has a twin-pronged business model: licensing to and reselling via ISPs and PC manufacturers, and selling directly to the consumer market. The latter has a four-tiered pricing system, starting with a fully featured free version and scaling up to subscriptions that run $5 to $15 a month.
The Inventors Showcase “was great,” Young adds. “It was way better than I expected. I really enjoyed it.”