From Crowd to Factory, Inventalator Aims to Simplify Product Creation

6/11/14Follow @XconomyWI

The process of taking an idea from a scribble on a napkin to a product on store shelves can be protracted, grueling, and expensive. Milwaukee-based Inventalator aims to make product development quicker, simpler, and cheaper with a Web platform that will combine crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, and connections to all the resources necessary to get a business off the ground.

Founder Coby Skonord, a University of Wisconsin-Whitewater graduate, quit his job as an auditor to pursue Inventalator because he felt passionate about helping democratize product development.

“This is needed right now because the simple example is somebody has this great idea, they tell a couple friends, then it shows up on QVC six months later. They should’ve made that thing,” Skonord says.

His grand vision for Inventalator? “To build the assembly line of the 21st century.”

That’s a formidable goal that will require Inventalator to first attract a critical mass of inventors, entrepreneurs, engineers, industrial designers, consumers, and other stakeholders to its site. Ultimately, it must prove the model works and that it can make money, while avoiding the pitfalls that have hampered some of its brethren.

Here’s how Inventalator works: An inventor submits a product idea on the website, and users vote for it if it’s something they would buy. If an idea gets enough votes (50 votes in a month during the current beta mode), the idea moves into the Inventalator “engine,” where the crowd will help improve the idea by suggesting product tweaks and pointing out competitors, for example. The idea is that future customers help to shape the product before it’s released, Skonord says. And those potential customers will be able to help make products a reality via a crowdfunding portal on Inventalator’s site.

Inventors will be able to solicit services from the site’s users, like a product CAD design or making a marketing video for a crowdfunding campaign. Once the idea is ready for mass production, Inventalator will put inventors in touch with contract manufacturers, product licensors, and distributors.

Clearly, the platform will have a lot of moving parts, but Skonord believes aspiring inventors will be attracted to Inventalator because it will house the entire product development ecosystem on one platform.

“What we’re doing first is connecting you with your customer and assessing whether your idea is viable via the crowd,” Skonord explains. “After that, then we actually are connecting you with a crowd of engineers, industrial designers—any resource that you would need in order to get a prototype made.”

Crowdsourced product development isn’t new, but the concept has seen mixed results in practice. Genius Crowds, founded in 2010, partnered with large manufacturers to commercialize ideas drawn from the crowd. It had about 5,000 users but folded last year, partly because the corporations didn’t move quickly and the crowd grew impatient waiting for products to become reality, Genius Crowds’ CEO CJ Kettler told Crowdsourcing.org.

Meanwhile, Inventalator will likely be competing with the heavily funded, well-established Quirky once the Milwaukee startup exits beta mode within a year, Skonord says. New York-based Quirky has raised $175.3 million since 2009, including a whopping $79 million Series D round last year, according to SEC filings and media reports. Quirky has a community of 886,000 inventors and has helped develop 314 products, according to its website.

Inventalator’s crowdfunding portal will also face an uphill climb toward market traction, competing for consumer dollars with more established heavyweights like Kickstarter and Indiegogo.

Inventalator will try to stand out in a few key ways, Skonord says. His company will be more of … Next Page »

Jeff Engel is the editor of Xconomy Wisconsin. Email: jengel@xconomy.com Follow @XconomyWI

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