On Quirky’s Site, Anyone Can Invent a Hit Consumer Product

6/21/11Follow @arleneweintraub

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after Pivot Power’s first month on the market. “It’s not far-fetched that he’ll make in excess of $100,000 in royalties in the first year, based on the projected volumes,” Jacobsen says.

Pivot Power was born from frustration: In 2006, when he was in high school, Zien found it was becoming increasingly difficult to charge his electronic gadgets. “All the big plugs would block each other” in outlets or power strips, he says. “I had power strips with eight plugs, but I could only use three. It was a stupid, annoying problem.” So he designed a power strip that could bend in many different directions, opening up each outlet so it could fit large or odd-shaped plugs.

Jake Zien invented Quirky's Pivot Power

Zien, who went on to attend the Rhode Island School of Design, refined Pivot Power with 3D modeling software, but didn’t know what to do from there. Then a family friend pointed him to Quirky. He submitted the idea on the website in 2010 and quickly collected enough votes to grab the attention of Quirky’s engineers and designers. They made a prototype using Quirky’s giant, in-house 3D printer, (affectionately dubbed Bertha by the staff). The printer churned out plastic in perfectly shaped layers until the model was complete. Quirky then passed that model along to manufacturing partners who specialize in making electrical components.

Zien, who now works in New York as a designer for a social-media startup, says he couldn’t have invented Pivot Power without Quirky. “Even if I had $10,000 to get a patent, I’d still be this one guy trying to convince big companies to produce it,” he says. “Quirky truly is the missing piece.”

Quirky is one of several New York-based companies that have embraced 3D printing as a key part of their business models. MakerBot Industries, for example, sells low-priced 3D printers and accessories directly to consumers. Shapeways, which recently moved from the Netherlands to New York, allows inventors to upload their designs to the company’s website and then prints models for them. But unlike those companies, Jacobsen says, Quirky treats 3D printing as part of a bigger process. “It’s integral, but it’s not the end result,” he says.

The startup’s staff of more than 40 includes product-development pros, marketing experts, packaging designers, and patent lawyers. The company was founded by 24-year-old Ben Kaufman, a serial entrepreneur who founded an iPod accessories maker called Morphie and sold it to Michigan-based mStation in 2007 for an undisclosed sum. Kaufman has surrounded himself with an impressive slate of consumer-products veterans, including Jacobsen, who previously worked for Smart Design, where he created products for brands like Logitech, Pyrex, and Corningware.

Quirky has raised about $8.5 million, according to regulatory filings. Investors include RRE Ventures, Contour Venture Partners, and Lowercase Capital.

Even though the company is now bringing in some revenues, it will need to raise more venture funding, Jacobsen says. “We’re maxed out in our physical space, and we want to scale and grow,” he says.

Meantime, Quirky continues to add to its selection of, well, quirky products. There’s everything from Broom Groomer, a dustpan with bristles that clean dirty brooms, to Wrapster, a gadget that prevents earbud headphones from getting tangled. The products all are all very different, but they have one thing in common, Jacobsen says. “The community curated the ideas,” he says. “We’re an open-source product-development company.”

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