From Crowd to Factory, Inventalator Aims to Simplify Product Creation

The process of taking an idea from a scribble on a napkin to a product on store shelves can be protracted, grueling, and expensive. Milwaukee-based Inventalator aims to make product development quicker, simpler, and cheaper with a Web platform that will combine crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, and connections to all the resources necessary to get a business off the ground.

Founder Coby Skonord, a University of Wisconsin-Whitewater graduate, quit his job as an auditor to pursue Inventalator because he felt passionate about helping democratize product development.

“This is needed right now because the simple example is somebody has this great idea, they tell a couple friends, then it shows up on QVC six months later. They should’ve made that thing,” Skonord says.

His grand vision for Inventalator? “To build the assembly line of the 21st century.”

That’s a formidable goal that will require Inventalator to first attract a critical mass of inventors, entrepreneurs, engineers, industrial designers, consumers, and other stakeholders to its site. Ultimately, it must prove the model works and that it can make money, while avoiding the pitfalls that have hampered some of its brethren.

Here’s how Inventalator works: An inventor submits a product idea on the website, and users vote for it if it’s something they would buy. If an idea gets enough votes (50 votes in a month during the current beta mode), the idea moves into the Inventalator “engine,” where the crowd will help improve the idea by suggesting product tweaks and pointing out competitors, for example. The idea is that future customers help to shape the product before it’s released, Skonord says. And those potential customers will be able to help make products a reality via a crowdfunding portal on Inventalator’s site.

Inventors will be able to solicit services from the site’s users, like a product CAD design or making a marketing video for a crowdfunding campaign. Once the idea is ready for mass production, Inventalator will put inventors in touch with contract manufacturers, product licensors, and distributors.

Clearly, the platform will have a lot of moving parts, but Skonord believes aspiring inventors will be attracted to Inventalator because it will house the entire product development ecosystem on one platform.

“What we’re doing first is connecting you with your customer and assessing whether your idea is viable via the crowd,” Skonord explains. “After that, then we actually are connecting you with a crowd of engineers, industrial designers—any resource that you would need in order to get a prototype made.”

Crowdsourced product development isn’t new, but the concept has seen mixed results in practice. Genius Crowds, founded in 2010, partnered with large manufacturers to commercialize ideas drawn from the crowd. It had about 5,000 users but folded last year, partly because the corporations didn’t move quickly and the crowd grew impatient waiting for products to become reality, Genius Crowds’ CEO CJ Kettler told

Meanwhile, Inventalator will likely be competing with the heavily funded, well-established Quirky once the Milwaukee startup exits beta mode within a year, Skonord says. New York-based Quirky has raised $175.3 million since 2009, including a whopping $79 million Series D round last year, according to SEC filings and media reports. Quirky has a community of 886,000 inventors and has helped develop 314 products, according to its website.

Inventalator’s crowdfunding portal will also face an uphill climb toward market traction, competing for consumer dollars with more established heavyweights like Kickstarter and Indiegogo.

Inventalator will try to stand out in a few key ways, Skonord says. His company will be more of a “market intelligence platform” that helps inventors connect the dots for commercialization, rather than an in-house developer and manufacturer. Quirky, on the other hand, has a team of almost 200 people who evaluate the ideas submitted on the website, develop the best ones, make prototypes using 3D printers, then find manufacturing partners for mass production.

“We’re connecting you with all the resources you need, whereas they’re taking over and driving the actual bus of developing your product,” Skonord says. That means Inventalator can get off the ground more quickly and operate with a leaner staff.

And unlike Quirky, which reportedly gives inventors 4 percent of product sales, Inventalator will let inventors keep the rights to their intellectual property. It plans to take a small percentage of product royalties during the platform’s early stages to “get us off the ground,” but will phase that out and eventually generate revenue solely via transaction fees, Skonord says. It will charge $10 to submit a product idea; charge a 1 or 2 percent fee for transactions on the site, like an inventor paying someone to create a CAD design; and take a 3 to 5 percent commission for crowdfunding campaigns, Skonord says.

“The inventor doesn’t want to give up product royalty; they don’t want to give up their IP,” Skonord says. “So what do we do? We let them keep both of those things. We focus on volume [of transactions].”

But the key differentiator for Inventalator, Skonord says, is a predictive software tool that will help inventors more accurately source ideas from the crowd. The tool will operate like a public stock market, with users on the site being given a pot of fake money that they use to place bets on different outcomes for inventors. So if an inventor poses a multiple choice question to the crowd about which market should be targeted for his or her product or which product licensor is most likely to buy it, users can “invest” the fake money in what they see as the best choice. If the value of their pick goes up because more users are betting on that option—like the climbing value of a stock—they can cash out and earn rewards through the website. Whether this market will catch on with users remains to be seen; Skonord says the incentives are still being worked out.

“What we’re doing is applying the same model [as a stock market], but instead of betting on the underlying value of a stock, we’re betting on the underlying value of an idea,” Skonord says.

Inventalator’s prediction market will help reduce uncertainty in the product development process, thereby saving inventors time and money, he says.

The prediction tool is still being developed, as is the crowdfunding platform, Skonord says.

Inventalator has raised $50,000 from local investors Froedtert Enterprises and Patrick Willms in a seed round potentially totaling $200,000, Skonord says.

Coby SkonordHe has assembled a team of five people with backgrounds in computer science, entrepreneurship, industrial design, and business management. So far, Skonord (pictured to the left) and Trae Tessmann, who is handling business development, are the only ones working on Inventalator full-time.

Now the company needs to attract a large pool of users to boost the validity of the crowdsourcing and give inventors plenty of choices for service providers. The site went live less than three months ago and currently has about 275 users, primarily located in the U.S., Skonord says. The company is embarking on an online marketing campaign, and he expects to triple the number of members in the next month.

“This is a huge undertaking, obviously, but it really just comes down to buyers and sellers at the end of the day,” Skonord says.

He’d like to establish relationships with schools like Milwaukee School of Engineering and Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design. He envisions students offering services to inventors as part of a class project that builds their resumes. And in some cases, inventors might choose to compensate service providers through product royalties or equity in the startup, eventually bringing them on as co-founders, Skonord adds.

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