By Caroline McMillan Portillo The Charlotte Observer.
Charlotte, N.C., resident and serial inventor Shailendra Suman knows that a commercially successful invention is about much more than the idea.
And in the nine years since he quit his day job in business development, he's known both the frustration of a commercial flop and the glory of a runaway success.
He also has high hopes for his fourth product, an LED light bulb, called the SmartCharge, that operates via light switch even when the power goes out, which he touted at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week.
NBC's "Today" show even featured the SmartCharge this month as one of a handful of impressive products that were at the CES. Though it isn't in retail stores yet, Suman says the bulb will cost around $30.
His other products include a gas gauge that measures the amount of propane in the tank (more than 6 million sold); antibacterial cutting boards, spatulas and tongs (never took off, mostly because it was hard to demonstrate the problem and how they solved it, he says); and a Bluetooth-enabled device that attaches to your keys, purse, toolbox or anything you want to protect and works as a wireless leash, pinging if you're about to leave it behind. (Suman has sold more than 6,000 of the devices, but making sure his software matches the ever-evolving smartphone operating systems has been more challenging than he anticipated.)
So what's the key to creating and building a business around a commercially viable invention?
To find out, the Charlotte Observer asked Suman and Louis Foreman, a prolific inventor and founder of product-development firm Enventys, to talk about the keys to giving your big idea its best shot in the marketplace.
"When I'm talking with someone about an invention ... there are five questions I want them to answer before they waste time and financial resources pursuing it," Foreman said.
So before jumping headfirst into the marketplace, consider these:
WHAT'S UNIQUE ABOUT THE PRODUCT? Almost everything a consumer could need is already in the marketplace, Foreman said. So consider what will make your particular product so compelling that a consumer would purchase it instead of something else. Suman, who was born in Varanasi, India, and attended Columbia University for a master's of engineering, got the idea for the bulb when the power went out as he was giving a presentation in India about three years ago.
"It was dark, we couldn't find an emergency lamp, so basically we had to stop because nobody could see anything," Suman said. "I had to take a flight, so I couldn't finish my presentation, and then I was thinking, 'What's a better solution?' "
The LED light bulb was also becoming popular for its energy savings and long life. (Many last for up to 20 years.) So what if he could improve on it? If he could solve this problem, he reasoned, surely consumers would want the solution.
WHO IS THE CUSTOMER? Inventors love to believe that everyone in the world is going to buy their product, which is an unrealistic expectation, Foreman said.
"I want inventors and entrepreneurs to be able to paint a picture of their perfect customers _ how old, their education level, geographic area," Foreman said. "Then you can quantify (demand)."
After doing research, Suman found out the average U.S. household loses power three to four times a year, for an average of four hours every outage.
So people with disposable income who have experienced the inconvenience of lost power would consider this solution, Suman said.
But, he added, there's potentially an even greater market overseas, in developing countries that experience rolling blackouts every day because they don't have energy to offer to every region at the same time.
That's a lot of lost time and productivity for companies, he reasoned, and backup generators are expensive. These bulbs, which can operate for up to four hours without electricity by using a battery, could be a more affordable solution.
WHAT IS THE DEMAND? Foreman then recommends that inventors find those ideal customers and ask them questions for market feedback.
Do they like it? How much would they pay for it? Where would they purchase it? How often would they buy it?
"Sometimes people love the idea but aren't willing to pay the price to generate enough to make an economic profit," Foreman said.
Unlike with his other three products, Suman created a 45-day Kickstarter campaign for his LED light bulb that ended Wednesday.
Kickstarter and services like it, such as Indiegogo, allow people to solicit donations in exchange for a product. In Suman's case, a donation of $35 gets you one of the first SmartCharge light bulbs. And the more you donate, the greater the reward.
He met his goal to raise $50,000. In addition to the sheer number of investors, two people invested more than $5,000 each in his campaign and seven people gave more than $1,000. That sort of investment shows people are passionate about the product, Suman said.
HOW MUCH MONEY WILL IT TAKE FOR THE BUSINESS TO BECOME PROFITABLE? And where will the money come from? Many businesses fail, Foreman said, because the founders had enough money to get started, but not enough to see it all the way through.
Inventing is not a cheap process. Though the U.S. Patent Office offers steep discounts to small businesses, the biggest cost comes in the form of legal fees, said Foreman, who is chairman of the U.S. Patent Office's public advisory committee.
The process could take a year and up to $10,000, he said.
Suman went the Kickstarter route in order to gauge demand and get the money to finance his first big batch of light bulbs.
But his first success, the GasWatch, wasn't cheap. He saw the gauge while in Australia on a business trip. He bought one, then realized it didn't screw into his American-made tank. After contacting the owner, he found out there wasn't a U.S. version. He licensed the patent for U.S. production for $50,000.
If your answer to the question of financing involves credit cards or tapping your home equity line, you should probably reconsider, Foreman said.
"Starting a business and launching a project is like taking a journey," Foreman said. "You need enough to get you to the final destination."