August 14, 2022

Prototype: You Bring an Idea, and They’ll Do the Rest

“Let’s get that on the table right now,” she says. Which is why it’s so crazy — that’s her word — that an idea that popped into her head one morning as she stood boiling eggs in her kitchen has led to her name being on a patent.

“If I’d made a list a year and a half ago of 100 things that could happen to me, this wouldn’t have made the list,” Ms. Kaufman says. Her daydream inspired a product called Eggies, which allows chefs to boil eggs in a classic hard-boiled shape but without their shell on. “I would have had a better chance — being old with no singing voice — winning ‘American Idol.’ ”

Ms. Kaufman, who is 56, is hardly old. In fact, some say she’s a child — a poster child for a new movement of amateur noodlers whose brainstorms are finding their way to market through partnerships with companies that seek out people just like them: folks with inspiration, but no business expertise.

“We focus on the people who have great ideas but want to keep their day job,” says Louis Foreman, the chief executive of Edison Nation, the company in Charlotte, N.C., that teamed up with Ms. Kaufman. “We’ll never compete with the people who are hard-wired to go out and start their own business — and we don’t want to.” But risk-averse people have eureka moments, too, he says. And that’s Edison Nation’s sweet spot.

“We have lots of fuel to turn a spark into a fire. But sometimes that spark is elusive,” says Mr. Foreman, who says his company splits all revenue with its inventors. “There’s no hold-back. If a dollar comes in, 50 cents goes to the inventor, 50 cents to us. It’s a transparent process.”

Edison Nation is just one of several so-called open innovation companies that seek to encourage creativity and share in the profits when that creativity strikes pay dirt. The Big Idea Group in Bedford, N.H., for example, is known for toys and craft products, among other things; Inno-Labs in Winfield, Kan., has helped develop a flexible grilling skewer, the FireWire. Add to this the several innovation-seeking sites run by big corporations —, and Procter Gamble’s Connect + Develop — and you get a lot of places for non-pro tinkerers to turn for help.

Edison Nation, however, has a leg up on its competition because it is run by the same people who produce the reality TV show “Everyday Edisons,” which appears on PBS. That program, now in its fourth season, got its start after Mr. Foreman complained to his wife, who is an avid reality TV fan, that there were shows about dancers, singers and survivors, but not inventors. “Everyday Edisons” has a loyal following.

Mr. Foreman and his four partners also run a product design firm called Enventys. Some of the products they have developed were discovered on the show, like the Gyro Bowl, a spill-resistant “kid proof” dish that stays open side up no matter how you tip it. Another product that got its start on PBS is the Emery Cat, a scratching board that lets your feline “trim its own nails” by doing what comes naturally: clawing.

But as they completed the show’s early episodes, Mr. Foreman said, he and his partners realized there were a lot more marketable ideas out there than the show could highlight.

“If we looked at 15,000 ideas and chose 10, it didn’t mean that idea No. 11 through 99 weren’t great; it just meant we only had enough bandwidth on the TV show to develop 10,” he says. With the Web site Edison Nation, which they started last year to cast a wider net, “there’s no limit to the number of winners.”

Ms. Kaufman became aware of the site when she looked at the back of a receipt from Bed Bath Beyond. Edison Nation, which often enters into agreements with retailers to search for new products (a service for which it charges those retailers $5,000) had advertised a contest there for new dormitory-room gadgets. Ms. Kaufman’s son had just gone off to a college dorm in New York, and she submitted three ideas online — a do-it-yourself bulletin board, a set of disposable bed sheets, and an ottoman that folded out as a bed — paying $25 each for the privilege. Next, she watched on her account’s “dashboard” — a personalized scorecard that shows whether ideas have been reviewed for patentability, feasibility, etc. — as each one was “kicked to the curb.”

Then, one day in the fall of 2009, she was standing over her stovetop at 6:30 a.m. when she felt a surge of adrenalin flow through her.

“Wouldn’t it be cool,” she thought, “if you could hard boil an egg in an egg-shaped container, and not have shells to peel?”

It’s not the act of peeling that bugged her. It’s what so many of the eggs looked like when she was done. “I am an egg gouger,” she acknowledges. “To bring 25 deviled eggs to a Seder, I have to buy four dozen. They get cracked. Do you start them in cold water to avoid it? Hot water? Put oil in the water? Salt? Everyone has a philosophy: ‘Peel them right away!’ But it doesn’t work. Am I buying a crummy brand of eggs? Whatever. I’m not a good egg peeler. I’m just not. And I think: this is a real problem.”

But was she the first to solve it? Ms. Kaufman Googled the idea every which way and — heart pounding — came up empty. So she submitted what she called the Egg Toss, paying another $25 fee. “My feeling was: What do I have to lose? If somebody in India has come up with this already, Edison Nation will find it.” That was on Oct. 27, 2009. On Dec. 29, she got the call: Edison Nation was going to develop her idea.

“I screamed for three days. I lost my voice, I was screaming so much,” she says. Now that her product is available — 12 Eggies for $10 plus shipping and handling — she’s tickled that on the Edison Nation site, there are forums on “the Betsy Effect.” Apparently, she has inspired people who never thought about inventing anything to give it a try.

So far, that’s working for Edison Nation, too, which also publishes Inventors Digest magazine. While Mr. Foreman won’t divulge annual revenue, he says he and his partners invested $8 million to get the enterprise going and that it has recently become profitable.

“We built this community,” he says, “and the inventors populated it.”


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