The messages began turning up in Eyal Levy's inbox in June:
"Hello. Just wanted to give you a heads-up about a Kickstarter project that is completely ripping off your original idea."
"Have you guys been made aware of a Kickstarter called Moon Pod which is trying to claim a similar product as their own design?"
Levy was aware now. For nine years, the entrepreneur had been developing Yogibo, a lifestyle company centered on new-age beanbag chairs that enfold users' bodies in a soft, squoodgey hug. Yogibo's customers were directing him to a Kickstarter campaign for Moon Pod, being marketed as the "reinvention of the beanbag," "unique," and "an experience you've never felt before." As far as Levy could tell, it was virtually identical to Yogibo's product, for which he would receive a patent in October.
Moon Pod's founder, John Fiorentino, had previously scored a big Kickstarter success with the weighted gravity blanket, for which supporters pledged $4.7 million in May 2017. That company, which is separate from Moon Pod, garnered enormous press but was later pummeled with complaints about everything from poor quality to bad customer service to inflated medical claims. By the time Moon Pod's Kickstarter was over, more than 5,000 backers had pledged $1,271,724 to the project.
Levy believes he's been ripped off. But that is not what rankles. Nor is it the potential financial impact to Yogibo, which he says he can't estimate.
What gnaws at Levy is Moon Pod's implication--which Fiorentino denies making--that this type of beanbag is his own creation. "When another company claims they invented it, it takes away from our uniqueness and value proposition," says Levy. "We have been doing this for a long time. And they just ignored us."
Levy's reaction is understandable. Intellectual property is a cold legal term, but the threat of imitation is particularly emotional for entrepreneurs, who see an attack not only on their idea but also on their story and sense of self. Jules Pieri is co-founder and CEO of The Grommet, an online marketplace that helps launch makers, and which featured Levy and Yogibo back in 2011. "When he sees this, he is seeing the sacrifices he and his family have made: forgoing vacations and maybe the bigger house they couldn't have while he was growing the business," says Pieri. "Then he goes into the office and sees dozens or hundreds of employees who trusted him, and now their faith in him is potentially threatened."
And of course inventor's pride matters too. Credible inventors have a kind of code to respect the originality of one another's ideas, says Pieri. "The whole world doesn't walk around reinventing the beanbag," she says. "Eyal did."
Beanbags in the basement.
In fact, Levy does not claim to have invented the body-hugging beanbag chair--but he does say that he came up with a unique spin on it. He first saw one in his native Israel, and was inspired to build his own version in 2008. At the time, he was living in Nashua, New Hampshire, and his pregnant wife wanted a pillow that would allow her to sleep comfortably on her stomach.
Friends saw the beanbag, liked it, and soon Levy had a little facility going in his basement, stuffing stretchy fabric with microbeads. A website, wholesale accounts, and eventually retail stores followed. Today, Yogibo has $60 million in annual revenue, more than 1,000 employees, and 130 retail outlets worldwide.
In an interview in June, Fiorentino told Inc.com that he drew inspiration for the Moon Pod from "sensory furniture" used to help kids with autism. (Yogibo's relationship with the autism community had been well-publicized for years.) Around the same time, he told Fast Company that the idea came from a large stone in a Japanese rock garden and the animated films of Hayao Miyazaki.
The similarities to Yogibo were not lost on Levy's customers. "We had dozens of customers emailing or approaching us through social media saying, hey, there is a company copying you," says Levy. He adds that Moon Pod deleted comments about Yogibo from its social media but he shared screen shots he had retained with Inc.
In an email response, Fiorentino said that Moon Pod "never claimed invention" but that the company currently is working on a patent. He says that Moon Pod monitors its social-media comments "to mitigate any negative or harmful language that isn't directly related to our product or company." Fiorentino also dismissed Levy's observation that he had purchased Yogibo products seven times in the months leading up to the Kickstarter campaign, saying he bought product from more than 15 competitors as market research.
Fiorentino says that Moon Pod, as well as other makers of beanbag furniture, "offers its own take on a classic and popular form factor that people enjoy."
Mulling next steps.
At the time Levy heard about Moon Pod, he was expecting final issue on a patent for his beanbag technology that had been moving through the system for years. "We had already got notification that our patent was approved and decided to wait for the formal copy," says Levy. "Then we would consider how to assert it."
The patent was issued in October. It covers "a functionally supportive pillow comprising a dynamically responsive combination of an inner core enclosing a bead material and an outer shell, such that that combination of the inner core with the outer shell creates a dynamic response to applied pressure to the pillow."
According to the Moon Pod website, its product "is filled with custom-made high-friction beads that are encased by supportive shells. The outer shell is a unique blend of materials that holds Moon Pod's shape, and works to actively morph to your body."
Yogibo's lawyers sent Moon Pod a cease-and-desist request in November, which Levy says that company chose not to honor. (Fiorentino didn't respond to Inc.'s request for comment on the cease-and-desist.) Levy and his legal team are in discussions about how to proceed.
"If they said this is just a cool beanbag or claimed that their product is better than ours--that's one thing," says Levy. "But to say that they were the ones who invented it...."
He trails off.