Online help for microboom of mini-Edisons

Novel way to find investors: Dave Petrillo and David Jackson, creators of Coffee Joulies, a product that keeps coffee at a drinkable temperature, with their invention at Cafe Trieste in San Francisco. NYT

Plenty of people want to build a popular website and become the next Mark Zuckerberg. But some technology entrepreneurs have a more old-fashioned goal: They want to make something you can hold in your hand. Like, actual stuff.

This can be risky territory, since making a physical product often requires a big upfront investment, and the smallest setback can wipe out profits. But inventors are getting around the hurdles — in part by using the web to find backers and buyers. They are also thinking small, as in smaller products and accessories that require less capital and are relatively easy to make and distribute.

Dave Petrillo and David Jackson, for example, friends and mechanical engineers from Pennington, New Jersey, had an idea for bean-shaped steel shells that go into a cup of coffee and quickly cool it to a drinkable temperature, then keep it warm longer. The shells contain a heat-absorbing gel.

The two men spent nine months fine-tuning the design for the beans, which they called Coffee Joulies. Then they scraped together $3,000 and built 100 prototypes by hand in Petrillo’s parents’ basement.

Making the first batch “was harder than we originally thought,” Petrillo said, so they began hunting for a way to speed the process. They found one in an unlikely place: a video clip on YouTube featuring a silverware factory in upstate New York. Making the handles of knives turned out to be similar to making Joulies.

Then, like a growing number of other inventors and designers in need of capital, the men turned to Kickstarter, a startup in New York that lets people present a sales pitch for a creative project and ask others to put cash behind it. This allowed them to gauge the appeal of the project before sinking a lot of time and money into it.

“We thought about investors and design competitions, but when we saw Kickstarter we decided to go for it,” Petrillo said. They created a three-minute video to demonstrate their product and said that anyone who gave them $40 would get five Coffee Joulies. They hoped to raise $9,500, but within a few weeks they have raised $1,77,000, and the total is still rising.

Yancey Strickler, one of the founders of Kickstarter, said the company originally thought the site would attract more one-time projects and experiments, like plans to record an album or make a documentary film. But he said Kickstarter had been pleasantly surprised to see homespun gadgets and inventions bubble up in popularity. “We didn’t realise we would move in this direction, but these projects are ingenious and clever and we want all of them to work,” he said.

Strickler pointed to one of the first gadget-focused projects on Kickstarter to gain significant momentum, the TikTok, which turns an iPod Nano into a wristwatch. Its creators raised nearly $1 million. “I think people really value having a good story to tell about how they got that watch,” he said.

Tom Gerhardt and Dan Provost, designers living in New York, came up with an accessory for the iPhone 4 called the Glif, which acts as a kind of kickstand or mount for the phone. The project was so successful on Kickstarter — more than 5,000 people placed an order — that the two decided to form a company and use the site to start a second project, the Cosmonaut, a marker-shaped stylus for the iPad. That project has attracted more than 3,000 backers.

Cultural shift

Technology specialists say the interest in projects like these is part of a cultural shift, in which shoppers are increasingly looking for a more intimate connection to the creators and the sources of the things they buy, reflected in the surging interest in farmers’ markets and local clothing designers.

“People are becoming more cognizant about where their things are made and are starting to expect the same information transparency about where everything they buy is from,” said Rachel Botsman.

The makers of the Coffee Joulies and the Cosmonaut had another selling point: They could boast that their products were made in the United States. They found recession-battered US factories that were willing to work with newer producers and make products in smaller runs.

The Coffee Joulies are made at Sherrill Manufacturing in Sherrill, New York, whose workforce has dwindled to 15 from a peak of 160 in the 1990s, according to its president, Matthew Roberts. It stopped making silverware last summer and now rents space to small industrial businesses.

Roberts said his company had agreed to cover half the cost — about $10,000 — of the custom stamping tools to produce the Joulies, with the understanding that the product’s creators would pay the money back once their company was off the ground. The lower barriers to entry in making electronics and other products are also attracting the attention of venture capitalists — including some who have made their fortunes in the online realm. The startups they back are more likely to outsource their manufacturing overseas.

“We’re starting to see a shift around consumer electronics,” said Ben Horowitz, who co-founded the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.

Horowitz’s firm recently placed a $49 million bet on Jawbone, a San Francisco company best known for its Bluetooth headsets. It will use the money to develop more mobile devices that make use of its voice technology.

Horowitz said the explosion of devices like smartphones had given rise to a healthy market for products that complement them.

Other hardware startups include Boxee, a New York company whose software lets people watch movies and videos from the web on a television. It released a set-top box last year called the Boxee Box, which has a dedicated following of early adopters. Peel, a small company in San Diego, recently began selling a small, pear-shaped device that turns an iPhone into a television remote. The company released an initial run of 1,000 Peels that sold out within two weeks.

A number of factors are smoothing the path for fledgling inventors, including low-cost or free design software, cheap prototyping services and social websites that make drumming up interest easy and inexpensive.

The situation resembles the way that anyone with a laptop and an internet connection can now start a web-based company, says Eric Von Hippel, a professor of technology and innovation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management.
Specialists like Hippel say these approaches are not likely to usurp the larger production models that dominate the electronics and technology industry. But they say that the climate is right for a microboom of mini-Edisons. “It’s so much easier to make stuff now,” Hippel said.

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