Exoskeletal body armor designed for protecting guards in prison riots. Infinitely gyroscoping bowls designed for spill-prone toddlers. High-powered pneumatic pogo sticks designed for… people who are really into falling from extreme heights.
They’re the kind of instruments of miscellany you would expect to find in an MIT engineering lab or a Silicon Valley incubator. Turns out, they’re housed in a renovated grist mill on the outskirts of downtown Charlotte, North Carolina.
Hop the ragged chain-link fence behind Panthers stadium, scale a gravel embankment, scramble across the old train tracks, and you’ll come upon a nondescript warehouse with an unmarked door. This is Edison Nation, and inside, you’ll find a winding labyrinth of high-tech design studios, 3-D printing labs, and ultra-modern offices bursting with products that have made millionaires out of amateur tinkerers who came to the company with little more than an idea. Hope you brought a good one.
“Ideas on their own have no value,” says Louis Foreman, chief executive officer of Edison Nation. “You may have come up with something extremely innovative, but without a complex team of engineers, marketers, and lawyers, it won’t go anywhere.”
That’s where Edison Nation steps in. For a 50 percent cut of the royalties, the 55-person company will take your idea from a table napkin to a store shelf, handling product design, patent filings and pitches to corporate executives who are increasingly looking beyond their firms’ R&D departments for innovations. General Electric, for instance, said in April that it had inked a deal with Quirky, an online community of inventors, to give its users access to GE’s huge portfolio of patents.
Edison Nation, however, runs more targeted searches for large companies looking to launch particular types of products. One such company, Bed Bath & Beyond, partnered with Edison Nation in 2009 to conduct a search for new dorm room gadgets.
As with all product searches on Edison, anyone could submit an idea confidentially via the firm’s site for a $25 fee.
Bed Bath & Beyond chose Jonathan Smith’s idea for a bed riser that features a built-in AC outlet and USB charger. The retailer plans to carry the item in all U.S. stores during this year’s back to school season, enriching Smith and Edison Nation as the royalty checks come in.
According to Edison Nation, the company runs between 50 and 60 searches per year, charging retailers $5,000 each time.
To be sure, Smith, an industrial designer by trade, could have earned twice as much had he taken it upon himself to develop the product, instead of handing over those duties--and the intellectual property--to Edison. But he would have had a tough time getting a prototype in the hands of Bed Bath & Beyond execs without Edison’s support.
“It’s not easy to access the attention of the companies we work with,” says Mary Dickson, an Edison spokeswoman. “Big corporations are wary of working directly with inventors given the proprietary nature of inventions.” Rubbermaid, for example, accepts online submission forms from inventors but will typically only consider patent-pending product ideas, Dickson notes.
For its part, Edison has been involved in more than 700 patents during its 12-year existence, serving in most cases as a middleman between large corporations and inventors who don’t have the time, money, or expertise to deal with the patent process.
Foreman, the CEO, is quick to point out--showing off a wall of framed patents in the company’s front foyer--that inventors get to keep their name on each filing. After all, each plaque has a personal story behind it. The IBM employee in Charlotte who came up with a new kind of trash can is now collecting checks from its sales at Williams-Sonoma. The parents in Wilmington whose idea for a spill-resistant bowl for kids became a breakout hit, having generated close to $60 million in sales since 2011.
“They came to us hoping to earn enough money to remodel their kitchen,” Foreman recalls of the Gyro Bowl creators. “Now they’ve bought a few homes.”
Edison Nation’s newest initiative is Edison Medical, a partnership with Carolinas HealthCare System that seeks to bring the ideas of medical professionals, from doctors to physicians’ assistants, to the market.
“We’re looking for innovations that improve patient care, lower the cost of producing care, or improve the patient outcome,” says Foreman in Edison’s brand new medical wing, flanked by massive water jet cutters and buzzing 3-D printers.
Already, Edison has helped produce everything from a prosthetic hand that employs pulleys instead of robotics to a simple latex glove with measuring marks on the index finger. Why? “Nurses were actually sticking Q-tips into people’s wounds to eyeball their depth before,” Louis explains, adding that the gloves allow for a quicker and more accurate measurement in situations when seconds count.
Statistics on the average depth of wounds from extreme pogo-stick crashes were unavailable at the time of publish.
Tour Guides Nate Hindman and Joe Epstein are "On the Road With Free Free Enterprise," visiting small businesses and entrepreneurs checking out local events, and telling the story of free enterprise in more than 20 American communities this summer. Follow their travels on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.