Aspiring Edisons

Aspiring Edisons

For more than 50 years, the Minnesota Inventors Congress has lured lone-wolf tinkerers and garage gadgeteers to Redwood Falls. For some, the event has provided a springboard for starting a business. But with attendance shrinking, can it reinvent itself and stay relevant?

Never in his wildest dreams did St. Paul fireman Jovan Palmieri believe he would become an inventor. That changed in 2009, after he’d been with St. Paul Fire Department for seven years. There he came across a problem so serious he felt he needed to do something about it.

“I had recently been promoted to driver and had to back these huge fire trucks up into a narrow firehouse entry, or, in an emergency, down alleys or down the street,” Palmieri recalls. Someone was needed to guide the truck through those tight spaces, and “I was always worried about running over one of my own guys.”

After spending hours on the Internet, Palmieri found out that this was a problem not just for fire departments, but also sanitation trucks and delivery vehicles, among others. Finding a solution began to obsess him. 

“I thought of it every time I backed up,” he says. “I kept track of backing accidents around the country. I kept sketching and thinking, but I was afraid to tell anyone about it for fear they’d steal my idea. I could only tell my wife and my brother. And yes, sometimes I did drive them crazy with talking about this.”

Then the light bulb went on: Have the guide person behind the truck control a wand that he could change from red to green to indicate the safety of his position, then wirelessly send the same color signal (along with “go left” and “go right” signals) to a receiver in front of the driver. Palmieri managed to produce a prototype for his system, but didn’t know what to do next.  

Then he got wind of the Minnesota Inventors Congress. 

“I was still afraid of telling anyone my idea, but this seemed like the perfect place to test out the concept,” Palmieri recalls. “So I took a booth there because I thought it would be a good way to meet companies that might want to manufacture it. I also thought it would be a good idea to meet other inventors and see what kinds of paths they had taken.”

Palmieri’s BackSafe system was awarded the grand prize as the best invention displayed at the 2010 Inventors Congress—and attention from a company interested in producing it. To win those prizes, Palmieri had to travel two hours southwest of the Twin Cities to Redwood Falls, where the Inventors Congress has been held every year since 1958. It’s the oldest continuous annual invention convention in the nation and the largest worldwide, attracting inventors from all over the globe, though most are from Minnesota. It’s an event where independent tinkerers, most of them working alone, can garner some attention, advice, and perhaps even investment.

But for all the light bulbs that it has helped to turn into viable businesses, the Inventors Congress’s own future has dimmed a bit. The market for solo inventors, those outside the R&D departments and innovation labs of established companies, is fragmenting. After more than half a century, the Inventors Congress may be due for some reinvention itself. 

 The Minnesota Inventors Congress first venue back in 1958 consisted of a group of 4-H cow barns. It now convenes in the Redwood Area Community Center, a sprawling newer building just east of the center of town, on U.S. 71. This year, during the weekend of June 10–11, the All-Peanut Baseball League, the Nature is Neat Club, and other regulars that use the center have given the space over to the Inventors Congress, which fills about half the building. The official attendance for the 2011 congress: 1,563. 

Walking from booth to booth is reminiscent of checking out the modest entrepreneurs’ booths in the grandstand building at the Minnesota State Fair. There’s the same smell of hot dogs and popcorn, and the same interplay between the booths and the visitors. But at the Inventors Congress, there’s also a section for attorneys and invention development firms trying to reach inventors, another for resources such as patent attorneys and the U.S. Small Business Administration, a section for student inventors, and a stage offering “Inventing Success Workshops,” among other presentations.

For Redwood Falls, the Inventors Convention is also a community festival. This year’s ancillary activities included a pancake and sausage breakfast at the Redwood Falls Municipal Airport, a 5K run, a powwow at the Lower Sioux Indian Community, and a two-hour evening parade followed by a baseball game between the Redwood Falls Redbirds and the Sleepy Eye Indians. The first night featured a social dinner at the nearby Jackpot Junction Casino; the Inventors Congress final awards ceremony and dinner was the finale.

The event clearly is lots of fun. But do exhibitors get any business from it?

Joel Matheson did. In 2003, the Albert Lea resident brought his idea for a jointed golf club to the Inventors Congress, hoping for a good reaction. He got it. The Inventors Congress “had a major impact on our invention,” Matheson wrote in a note of thanks to organizers, noting that “We have recently signed a Letter of Intent with a company we met while exhibiting at [the Inventors Congress]. This Minnesota-based company will handle the financial backing, marketing, manufacturing, and sales of our products.”

Matheson isn’t alone. In a survey of exhibitors taken by the Inventors Congress, 84.6 percent said their objective of making business contacts there was successful. Other inventors are simply seeking feedback: More than two-thirds of those polled said that they were looking for public response to their idea. “The good feedback I got was vital to me in my confidence in the product,” says Victor Toso, who brought his Nada-Chair to the Inventors Congress in the late 1980s. He now runs St. Paul–based Nada-Concepts. “But there’s also a lot of value in having that patent talent there to get you beyond the point where you’re going to get ripped off. And the Inventors Congress is a great place to look at both those sides.”

What is a major invention show doing in Redwood Falls (2010 population: 5,254)? In fact, the town has long held a place in Minnesota entrepreneurial history. In 1886, railroad agent Richard Sears began selling watches on consignment throughout the area, a series of transactions that led to the founding of the Sears Roebuck department store colossus. 

It was local wheat farmer Bob Starr who had the vision for the Inventors Congress. To Starr’s way of thinking, farming communities have always been strongholds of tinkerers and dreamers. What’s more, “I got tired of seeing all our children move off to Minneapolis and Chicago,” he said in 1958, and thought the inventors fair might attract business to the community. 

The Inventors Congress can claim some success in developing products. The first motorized golf cart was introduced there, as was the first pop-up camper, plus new and improved versions of the motorized golf cart and the fish-line weed eater. So many new ideas have been presented in such an interesting way that the Tonight Show’s Jay Leno sent a camera crew to the congress a few years ago.

One invention introduced at the congress that became the basis of a Redwood Falls company was a new type of cane. St. Paul salesman Carl Oja saw that people requiring a cane often needed more stability than the traditional one-legged model could provide. He developed a cane that tapered into four legs. In 1964, Oja brought his idea to the Inventors Congress. Reaction was sufficiently favorable that Oja decided to produce the canes himself. He also decided to manufacture them in Redwood Falls, founding a company called ActiveAid. When Oja’s cane started to meet intense competition, his son Mark shifted the company’s emphasis to another of his family’s ideas. ActiveAid now produces more than 35 varieties of padded commodes for handicapped people, employing 36 people. The company’s 2010 revenues: $5 million. 

 The person who has done the most to maintain the event that helped launch stories like Carl Oja’s is Deb Hess, who has been involved in organizing the Inventors Congress for more than 25 years and has run it for the last six. She’s particularly interested in the educational function of the organization. The Inventors Congress provides free information to inventors, including access to its resource center—which guides inventors through the product development process—workshops for inventors and entrepreneurs, and watchdog information on companies that take advantage of inventors. 

“She probably is one of the nation’s leading experts, if not the leading expert, in how you bring an idea from conception to reality,” says Jay Erstling, a professor at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, where Hess lectures on intellectual property once a year. “She’s an amazing fount of information, and she’s one of the most modest people I know.”

But when it comes to the future of the Minnesota Inventors Congress, Hess and her team are themselves being called upon to be inventive. All of the half-dozen or so other such invention conventions across the U.S. have gone out of business, and the same threat hangs over the Inventors Congress. Money is one reason why the event is under pressure. Though fees offset the costs of producing the show, the year-round funds for running the organization traditionally have been provided by the Minnesota Legislature. And while the state gave the Inventors Congress $85,000 in the 2008–2009 budget, the legislature has proposed $37,000 for the coming year. 

The loss of state revenue may handcuff Hess’s efforts. But it’s the ongoing slide in inventor participation that presents the biggest threat. This year, 33 inventors showed up to display their inventions. A decade ago, there were more than 150.

“It used to be that buyers, or people who were interested in getting licensing deals, would come to small shows like this,” says John Calvert with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Inventors Assistance Program. “What’s happening now is as companies specialize, they tend to go to the bigger shows—the housewares show, the PGA [golf] show, the hardware show.”

Calvert doesn’t think the Inventors Congress has to shut off the lights. “They could offer a rotating theme,” he says. “If you moved the show itself to Rochester and emphasized medical products, that would be a very good area, because of the Mayo Clinic and the medical device companies in the Twin Cities. It would be a good opportunity for inventors in the area to come to the show. You can still have a Minnesota Inventors Congress, and it doesn’t mean the Inventors Congress would have to leave Redwood Falls, but the show would have to [travel].”

For inventors like Jovan Palmieri, the Inventors Congress was worth the cost of his own travel. His BackSafe system is now in the hands of a company that markets products to fire departments. Palmieri says that it is assessing the cost of producing BackSafe. 

“If I had never gone to the Inventors Congress,” he says, “I would never have met the people in the industry who eventually may end up producing the invention.” 

Visions Made Real

Some products first shown at the Minnesota Inventors Congress that became the basis for successful businesses: 

 

EasyStand

Prior Lake resident Alan Tholkes’ EasyStand device, which allows wheelchair users to stand up, became the basis for a Redwood Falls–area company called Altimate Medical, which was purchased in 2005 by Ohio-headquartered medical company Invacare. Tholke continues to develop new product ideas, including the Stance Chair, designed to improve the ergonomics of office computer users. The Stance Chair is manufactured by Belle Plaine–based HealthPostures.

 

FireFlight 

This is a permanent escape ladder mounted beneath an exterior two- or three-story window. Harold Fratzke, a farmer from Cottonwood in western Minnesota, licensed the patent to a Minnesota manufacturer that made more than 800 units before selling the license to a Colorado firm. Over the years, Fratzke has licensed many of his other inventions to local and national manufacturers.

 

Flamefighter

A handheld piercing nozzle system for extinguishing fires was first developed in the mid-1980s by Arlan Bakke, of Motley. It’s now manufactured by Waconia-based Flamefighter Corporation. CEO Steven Peterson says that the piercing nozzles represent about one-third of his firefighting equipment company’s sales.

 

Step Saver

Roger Hansen of Wood Lake, west of Redwood Falls, developed an idea for an easier way of delivering salt for municipalities and businesses. Fifteen years later, Redwood Falls–based Step Saver employs 12; it will post about $2.5 million in sales this year.  —S. K.