Let's talk about the new judges on this season of American Inventor for a second.
On the right end of the stage sits Pat Croce, a former Inc. coverboy who capitalizes on a preternatural optimism that helped grow his company, Sports Physical Therapists, to a $40 million sale and sent him on a success trajectory from leading the 76ers out of a big slump to his high energy motivational speaking engagements. He certainly seems engaged on the show. I can tell already that he will be my favorite throughout the season. He offered himself up as a test subject for the couple with the slew of electronic contraptions until it was revealed that their hair remover was "a little dangerous right now." He jumped out of his chair to give the guy with the collapsible wheelchair a hug, his signature. And, he was very forthright about his mission on the show: to find inventions that are the most innovative and appropriate on a massive scale.
I anticipated that my favorite would be kooky Mr. Foreman, but he kept quiet for most of the episode, excepting the obligatory "that's a great name" in reference to George Cox and his sons George II, George III, and Cox's inspiration Georgia. Children as catalysts seems to be a recurring theme in American Inventor, as we saw Rick DeRenneaux move forward with his motorized paper cars that were created with his students in mind. I was surprised that it was this invention rather than the one from the other teacher, Michael Every, who built the aforementioned collapsible wheelchair. In my mind, helping the disabled is a little more important than giving kids another toy. But then, again, the whole point of this show is to find the tool appealing to the greatest number of people, and as much as I'd like for things to be easier for our handicapped friends, they exist in a niche.
The third newcomer, Spanx inventress Sara Blakely, constantly unleashes cartoonish smiles that practically sparkle and chime. Even though I claim to be a woman who cares deeply about her appearance, I've always found her footless hosiery to be a mockery to feminism. I realize that I am in the minority as Spanx are enormously popular with many women less lumpy than me, but my hostility toward Blakely flared when we witnessed her rooting for Shelly and Erica's air freshener artificial flowers over Milton Butler's adjustable weed whacking attachment and Greg Chavez's Angel fire suppression system. The pair of coeds had clearly gotten the $10,000 they had invested in their novelty from supportive parents and will have no trouble charming any number of manufacturers, distributers, and retailers. There's no doubt that Blakely saw an early version of herself in these girls, but is that really any reason to ignore better ideas?
Oh, and, of course, I could never forget our dreamy co-producer, Peter Jones. That accent! Those cufflinks! When he offered $3,000 out of his own wallet to the Cox clan, I said to my viewing companion, "reality TV gold!" It's difficult to tell whether it was the kindness in his heart that motivated him to reimburse the family taken preyed on by patent book binding schemers or whether his interest lies more in strumming the heartstrings of the audience. He's certainly the coldest, "tell-it-like-it-is" critic on the panel, dispensing his stock line "it's not innovative enough" to one contender after another. We were led further to believe that the wheelchair would advance when he uncharacteristically complimented Every by saying it was "the first time I have seen a true invention. It's an absolute overwhelming yes." But Los Angeles is a big city, I suppose, and there can be only one American Inventor after all.
I don't see either Chavez or DeRenneaux advancing to the end of the season, but apparently I should be more careful about where I put my money. If you were a VC, would you give either of these dudes $50,000 to take it to the next level? What improvements would you suggest? As you are well aware, the product is just a minor detail. Do they have what it takes to turn their wares into a business?
See you next week when we see more crazy shenanigans at the Chicago and New York auditions.