Think you've got the idea for the next Post-It? At this week's International Home and Housewares Show, I met a bunch of people that feel pretty certain they do. About 50 inventors manned small booths, pitching their ideas and prototypes to investors and retailers. Judges also scrutinized the gadgets, naming several products as award winners. Here's a sampling of items you might soon see in a store near you, and a bit about the people behind the ideas.
What makes a good gadget? I spoke to Shail Prashad, Vice President of Marketing for Telebrands -- one of the companies responsible for a huge number of infomercial gadgets, including the PedEgg. Prashad told me that successful products should solve a problem first and foremost; and the problem should be experienced by a large number of people. Telebrands, which buys ideas and products from inventors such as the ones I met, looks for items that people can easily relate to, and that don't need a lot of explaining. A quick demo should be all it takes to illustrate the problem and the solution. I had a great time hearing inventors hone their pitches.
Which of these inventors and products has what it takes? My vote, if I had to pick just one, goes to the Hot Iron Holster, even though it did not win an award. (I did notice that most of the judges were men, perhaps not in the best position to judge the merits of of the Holster, which holds a hot curling iron or flat iron.) Not to slight the winners, but everything about the Holster seemed well thought out; the product looked great and worked well. The packaging, logo and marketing materials were hip and also well produced. I'd buy it!
Flippt is a collapsible plastic holder that inverts bottles, letting you get every bit of product out of the container. The inventor, Colleen Costello, had her "light bulb" moment when a bottle of salad dressing she'd inverted in the fridge came flying out when she opened the fridge door, her husband told me. Flippt will work for for pretty much any bottle, and a rubber gripper on the bottom ensures it will stay put.
The Flippt seemed pretty much exactly like the kind of product Telebrands' Prashad told me they look for: one look and it's easy to understand both the problem and the solution. Flippt doesn't yet have a website or distribution.
This picture isn't the best, but this gadget for your keys let's you clip your existing keychain to a little decorative hook; you can then place the hook on the edge of your purse, saving you from having to fish around in your purse to find your keys, says inventor Sandy Stein. Ms. Stein told me she started her company from nothing, and wasn't having having any luck finding stores who would sell her products until she enlisted the help of her flight-attendant colleagues, who approached their own favorite local stores and convinced businesses to carry the product. Stein makes them in a zillion different designs, and says this is now a full-time business for her
Finders Key Purse.
This one gets my personal vote for a neat, useful product. The Hot Iron Holster was invented by Erin Balogh, who stuggled doing her hair in the morning in a small bathroom with a pedastal sink -- and not enough shelf space for her curling iron and blow dryer. The Hot Iron Holster is made of silicone, and it's made to hold hot hairstyling tools. A long end flips over the edge of your sink and sort of miraculously just sticks there. I thought this was a great idea. Ms. Balogh and her husband Guy are tirelessly enthusiastic and a joy to talk to. I think this is definitely a product you'll see in stores someday. There's a website, but you can't buy one yet.
This one had me a little mystified. Maybe it's because I don't really need to carry around a towel all the time. The Towel Dog is a little hockey-puck shaped doodad that you can clip to your belt. You can then poke the end of a towel or rag into little rubber jaws. The inventer says it's useful for bartenders, mechanics or anyone that needs to keep a towel handy. There's a website for Towel Dog, but you can't yet buy one.
Have you ever tried making a beer or soda cold by twisting it in some ice? Inventor Brian told me he invented the Spinner -- a battery powered tool that does the spinning for you, chilling a can or beer or soda super quick. You can also use it to chill small canisters of homemade ice cream. Here's Brian demonstrating; he did tell me that it's not spinning fast enough to make the can explode when you open it....
This clever little shelf, called the UpShelf, snaps around the pole of your patio umbrella, giving you a spot to put accessories, condiments, candles, etc. It's the kind of thing you sometimes see at restaurants. I didn't get to speak to the inventor, but when I showed this picture to colleagues here at ConsumerSearch, a collective "ahhhh" arose from the group. You can buy one now, available in three colors, for $30 each.
Inventor Lisa Blackburn, a full-time lawyer, told me she hates to do dishes, prefering to store her leftovers in disposable plastic bags rather than bowls. But filling bags is a pain, she says, because it's hard to hold the bag open while pouring items into it. Her BagFormR is meant to hold the zipper bag open for you so you can pour in items. When I spoke to Blackburn, she said "you're probably only the 12th or 13th pitch I've given" but she sounded pretty polished, probably because of her legal background.
Craig Madaus was led to his idea by his hobbies: boating and hot yoga. Annoyed by water bottles that were bulky (both when full and when empty), he was inspired to create the Bubi bottle when he encountered some silicone kitchenware in a store. Silicone, he realized, would be the perfect material for a heat-resistant bottle that could hold its shape yet squish up when empty. The 22-ounce bottle can hold cold or hot liquids (up to 600 degrees).
Madaus, who's been working on the Bubi for about a year, said he went through three prototypes before he got it right: "The hardest part was figuring out the right curve on the bottom so the bottle would stand up on its own" says Madaus. The Bubi bottle is in some specialty camping stores, and is available at Paragon Sports, in-store and online, for $28.
The Bubi bottle won the Housewares Show's "Best Product Concept" award. The website is BubiBottle.com.
Another award winner at the International Home and Housewares Show, this time for "Best Market Research," the WonderTip is a disposable pastry bag that incorporates the tip as part of the bag itself. To change the type of piping you want to make, you clip off the end of the bag and measured points. The idea grew out of Brenda Grimes' frustration with cleaning ordinary pastry bag and tip sets, which contain multiple parts that screw together.
It was easy to see why Grimes' won the show's award for the best research. After an exhaustive analysis of competing products from Wilton and other brands, Grimes and her husband, a patent attorney, checked patents back to 1900 to make sure they were really creating something entirely new. Grimes showed me her notebook filled with drawings, concepts and details from her sketching and prototyping phases. I could really see her thought process in her detailed recordkeeping.
The bags themselves seem like a nice idea for a casual baker who wants to do a little decorating now and then without buying and storing a bunch of plastic or metal tips. Personally, I have a whole box of those bags and tips, and use them maybe once every three years if I get ambitious with the Christmas cookies. I'd probably be a good target buyer for the WonderTip. Grimes doesn't yet have a website.
John Mu -- a self-confessed serial inventor -- told me his teenage daughters were his inspiration for Shoebby, plastic shoe boxes that can double as sliding drawers. Each box is able to hook to the box below so they don't slide all over the place. Mu has already patented his clear plastic boxes. His daughters were on hand helping demonstrate.
I think these would be a big hit with stylists, who need quick access to shoes on a photo shoot, and don't have time to hunt around in boxes looking for the right pair. Mu said quite a few buyers were indeed professional organizers or fashion designers. Several sizes are available for standard shoes, boots and mens shoes. A set of three standard shoe drawers costs $15 on the Shoebby website.
This product gets my vote for the best name; The Matzah Baller looks like a tea infuser, but it's intended to scoop up your matzah dough so you can release it in your boiling stock. Inventor Greg Becker says you can also use it for making falafel. Becker makes a fun pitchman and I had a lot of fun chatting with him. He's managed to get his invention on Amazon.com, where you can buy a Matzah Baller of your own for $8.25.
Michael Taylor admits that his Folding Proofer is niche product. Home bread bakers will get the concept; it's a electric plate that holds precise heat and humidity for proofing bread (the final rising process when making yeast breads). Taylor says lots of home bakers end up with inconsistent results because weather and your home's heat and humidity can vary so much. His proofer is meant to counteract that, keeping heat and humidity at the correct settings for your bread recipe. You can also use it to make larger batches of yogurt or melt chocolate.
I was impressed with the fit and finish on this machine, which despite its large size, folds down neatly and compactly. Taylor's been making the Proofer for more than four years now, and is excited that it will soon be featured in flour-brand King Arthur's catalog. He even created his own website for marketing the $150 product, which is also available through Amazon.com, where it has a handful of good reviews.
One of the less developed products in the showcase, Paul Tran's Tissue Boxganizer is designed to get your tissues off the back of the toilet or shelf, where it takes up too much space. Tran's solution is a holder that lets you position the tissue box sideways, hang it on a wall or from a towel bar, or clip it under a shelf. Tran says he's had a hard time showing off his product, and at least at this early stage, I can see why; you're limited to one size of tissue box (I tend to just buy whatever is on sale), and if your tissues stop auto-feeding, you'll have to remove the box and fish out the next tissue. His flyer lists a website, but it wasn't working when I checked it.
Bubbly Tina Nazarian told me the inspiration for her washable appliance-handle covers came her kids, and her friends' kids, who after school would attack the family fridge, mucking up the handle of her nice new refrigerator with their sticky fingers. A brother-in-law provided fabric and coached her through making sample handle covers, which just attach with hook and loop tape. The covers are $10 for one pair at Handle-This.com.
The descriptively named Hands Free Hair Dryer is just that: a hair dryer with an angled back end and a suction-cup hook/ring with which to hang it on a wall or mirror. Inventor George Rouail (who speaks seven languages, thank you very much), an Iranian hairstylist living in Chicago, invented it after tiring of hearing his clients complain that they needed an extra hand to do their hair in the morning.
Like many of the inventors I met, this isn't Rouail's first product idea. He has more where this came from. "I feel good when I find solutions," says Rouail, who also has invented a kids' ball game. The hair dryer goes for $50 on his website, ByGeorgeProducts.com.
I should also mention that Rouail has really excellent hair.