A Brilliant Mind
12/10/2010 3:40 PM
12/10/2010 4:48 PM
Whenever a better mousetrap is invented, Charlottean Louis Foreman may well be the man to build it, brand it and make it the terror of the rodent hordes. Though he’s not a prolific inventor himself, in the last 10 years Foreman has been directly or indirectly involved in securing more than 500 patents for others’ ideas. Many of them hang framed in the renovated 1907 grist mill in Third Ward that’s home to Enventys, the product development firm Foreman founded in 2000 and continues to lead as CEO. “A lot of people have good ideas. Most people never follow through,” says Foreman, 42. “They don’t want to put in their own dollars.” But in Foreman and his cohorts at Enventys, those ideas find a champion, and often a backer. Selling sports equipment and then custom-printed T-shirts as a college student, Foreman became convinced of the value of intellectual property. As he puts it: “The importance of having a brand, original works of art, new designs. You start to realize there’s value in creativity. It gives you a leg up on the competition.” What he and his partners do – through Enventys and a related PBS series, “Everyday Edisons,” and an online community for inventors – is bring their business creativity to bear on others’ good ideas. Foreman calls it “monetizing intellectual property.” Believing firmly that invention is not a solo sport, he has surrounded himself with some 50 industrial designers, engineers, graphics artists, marketers and others who bring the new ideas to fruition. His partners in Enventys are Charlotteans Todd Stancombe, president; Daniel Bizzell, in charge of industrial design; Ian Kovacevich, who heads engineering; and Matt Spangard, in charge of the interactive/web department. Larry Deleon is a partner in an Enventys subsidiary and producer of “Everyday Edisons.” Businesses and individuals seek Enventys’ help when they want to invent a new product or retune an old one. The company decided early on “to put skin in the game,” Foreman says. So, in some cases, it partners with the businesses, investing its own capital. In the case of inventions developed from the TV show and the online community, Edison Nation, profits are split 50-50 with inventors. “If you’re successful, we’re successful,” Foreman says. And to make sure this happens, “we only want clients we know we can be successful with.”
The making of an entrepreneur Hedging risks, scoping out markets and the like have been second nature to Foreman since he was a sophomore lacrosse player at the University of Illinois. He realized there was no lacrosse equipment supplier near the campus, so he rented a closet in his fraternity house and set up shop. “I paid the fraternity $50 a semester, or something like that.” Soon realizing the seasonal limitations of sports equipment, he expanded into student-designed, custom-printed T-shirts for fraternities, sororities and other campus groups. An innovator even then, he used equipment that would print lettering all over a T-shirt, down the sleeves and around the back. It was a look that was popular in racing, which led Foreman to NASCAR. After building his University Sportswear into the 25th largest screen-printing company in the country, he sold it and in 1995 moved to Charlotte with a dozen other associates to print and sell NASCAR-related apparel. Along the way, he’d managed to graduate with a degree in economics, though he learned more about business outside of class than in. Graduating was important, he says, because he was the first of his family to do so and he wanted to set a good example for his sisters. In Charlotte, Track Gear bore the big names of Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace and others, and by 1997 was doing $15 million a year in sales. Then, along came a good offer – the entrepreneur’s goal, Foreman says – so it was sold. Three years later, he started Enventys, the culmination, he says, of everything he’d learned in 20 years of business.
Finding success The main qualifications for inventions at Enventys: Ideas have to be really new, so they can qualify for a patent, and they have to meet a widespread need. “Sometimes the smallest products make millions and millions of dollars,” he says. Robyn Pellei, a Charlotte mother of nine kids, brought Enventys an idea for a decorative band that identifies each child’s sippy cup or bottle. With nine kids, says Foreman, who has two teenagers, “you can imagine the sippy cups.” Colorful Bandettes, with room to write a child’s name, are now selling at Babies R Us, buybuy Baby and on Amazon.com. “Mom inventors are great,” Foreman contends. A woman, he says, “is always imagining things that will make her life easier.” You can’t get much more basic than a trash can, and that’s been one of the more successful inventions coming out of the “Everyday Edisons” show, which Foreman created when he realized that Enventys needed a wider reach. Former IBM employee and retired corporate pilot Franklin Ramsey of Charlotte was helping his wife with her janitorial service one night when she asked him to replace the plastic bags in the trash cans. The new bags kept slipping down in the plastic cans, so Ramsey took out his knife and made some cuts in the top of the cans, hooking the bags through them. When his design won a spot on “Everyday Edisons,” Enventys changed it to a more sophisticated one, a circular holder with “teeth” in the middle that fits over a hole in a plastic trash can liner. A major manufacturer picked it up, and now Ramsey’s Pressix is on cans sold at Williams-Sonoma, The Container Store, Walmart, Bed Bath & Beyond and other stores. He’s not getting rich from royalties, he says, and he doesn’t expect to, but anything extra added to a retiree’s income is welcome. “I was a person who just stumbled on an idea,” he says. “You keep your mind open for things. Sometimes you see something hard to do, and if you can simplify it, there’s a market out there for it. “The one thing you need to go away with is the fact that one person cannot invent something, bring it to market, patent it. It’s a hugely complicated process even for a simple idea like this,” says Ramsey.
Reality TV “Everyday Edisons” was born because Foreman’s wife, Liz, loves reality television. Watching with her, he realized that reality TV is now the way that people learn about such industries as fashion and food. There were no shows at the time about inventors, so he approached WTVI about showing inventors competing for a spot on a show, then having their ideas turned into a saleable product. If Enventys would film it, WTVI would run it, he was told. “Let’s do a casting call in Charlotte to see if anyone even shows up,” he thought. More than 300 people responded. Casting calls were held in four other Southeast cities where PBS stations agreed to run the show, and by 2007, the first season of “Everyday Edisons” was off and running, showcasing 14 inventions from among 2,000 submitted. PBS soon picked it up; 156 stations started running it, and it won multiple Emmys. Besides Ramsey’s trash can, Charlotte-based inventions showcased in the show’s three seasons have included a combination diaper bag/changing table/bassinet concocted by Charlotte seamstress Maria Pistiolis and a scrapbooking portfolio that holds designs temporarily in place. That one, Arccivo, was by a trio of Huntersville friends, Mary LaValley, Pam Hester and Deborah Nance. Carolina Panthers coach John Fox’s two teenage sons, Mark and Cody, appeared with Book Jax, their design for a book cover with rigid edges. The plastic-infused edges prevented wear and tear on textbooks (and save kids money from fines). In all, 36 inventions have made it onto the air, and many have subsequently made it onto retailers’ shelves. But since there was a limit to how many could be chosen from around the country each season, thousands of ideas were left behind. To keep in touch with their creators, Foreman and partners established the Internet community Edison Nation. And typical of anything Foreman touches, it soon became a way for inventors – and Enventys – to make money.
Playing matchmaker Big companies like Home Depot and PetSmart can’t interview every inventor individually, yet “they’re hungry for new ideas,” Foreman says. So the companies post their needs on the Internet site. Foreman and crew pick inventors’ most suitable responses, then relay them to the companies. “We’re the matchmakers. We’re the dating site,” he explains. Foreman shares his knowledge of business in classes he teaches at Central Piedmont Community College, Belmont Abbey College and Queens University, and he’s been appointed to an advisory committee to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. “I have a hard time saying no,” he says. He publishes the magazine Inventors Digest, and he co-authored “The Independent Inventor’s Handbook,” published by Workman Press in New York in 2009. “Everyday Edisons” is getting ready to embark on a fourth season, with casting calls set for January in cities yet to be chosen. Some of the Charlotte inventors continue to get their royalty checks, but that’s not all that’s been gained. Just seeing her Korbie diaper bag/bassinet combo on the shelf at Belk was a thrill for Pistiolis. “You have a good feeling inside, and that’s enough for me,” she says.
Some ingenious Enventys products
Monster Pong Monster Pong is a new take on old-school ping pong. Portable, lightweight and easy to carry, Monster Pong is a great game for a friendly or not-so-friendly competition. $130. Available at www.monsterpong.com.
FlipOutz Flipoutz are bracelets that children are able to wear and personalize with their own coins. $13. Available at www.flipoutz.com.
Korbie Combining a removable bassinet with a diaper bag and changing pad, the Korbie all-in-one baby bag is an ideal accessory for parents on the go. $150. Available at www.korbiebag.com.
Emery Cat The Emery Cat is a patented honeycomb surface that works like a nail file for cats. They are able to safely file their own claws, while also taking advantage of the little toy. $20 for two. Available at Walgreens, Target, PetSmart, CVS and many more stores. www.emerycat.com.
Mister Steamy Mister Steamy dryer ball, together with Fresh Shot, ensures that clothes leave the dryer with no wrinkles and with a fresh smell - no iron needed. $20. Available at Walgreens, Best Buy, Target and more. www.mistersteamy.com.
Bandette Robyn Pellei, CEO of ViveVita in Charlotte, is a mother of nine children, so she is privy to everyday problems parents run into. She’s created her business around controlling the chaos found in the home or on the go. Her Bandette cup labels allow parents to customize their children’s cups with their name, allergies and other necessary details. $7. Available at Babies R Us, buybuy BABY. www.vivevita.com.
Pressix Franklin Ramsey of Charlotte is a 70-year-old inventor and his original idea took root within his wife’s janitorial business as a solution to efficiently secure a large quantity of trashcan liners. The Pressix technology is applied to stainless steel trashcans to secure the liner and keep it in place. Licensed to Test-Rite and Lifetime Brands, trashcans with Pressix technology are for sale at The Container Store, Williams Sonoma, Bed Bath & Beyond, Walmart and more.
Gyro Bowl Inventors Brad and Melinda Shepard of Wilmington invented the Gyro Bowl, a weighted bowl with a galactic design that keeps cereals and finger foods in place while toddlers are on the move. $15 for two. Available at www.gyrobowl.com.
Independent Inventors Handbook Louis Foreman’s first book on the product development process, offering readers insight and advice to go from idea to payoff. $15. Available at Amazon.com and www.independentinventorshandbook.com.
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