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Tuesday, 04 September 2012 10:52

Networks help innovators grow ideas

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WEST MICHIGAN — Orville Crain had what he believed was a great idea, but he needed some help. So Crain punched the phrase “help for inventors” into Google one day. The responses led him to Flint and a monthly meeting of a local inventor’s network.

After a few months of making the drive back and forth across the state from Muskegon, and getting “great suggestions” on how to commercialize his Klever Kutter box cutter, Crain decided to start a similar group back home.

“I was so enthralled in what they were doing and their processes (in Flint),” Crain said.

He connected with like-minded colleagues and together they formed the Muskegon Inventors Network in 2006 that provides an outlet for people seeking assistance to commercialize an idea they have for a new product.

A few years later, Crain worked with Dan Girdwood, an intellectual property attorney at Price Heneveld LLP and a regular attendee of the Muskegon Inventors Network’s monthly meetings, and others to form the Grand Rapids Inventors Network.

The Muskegon and Grand Rapids organizations today are now among a growing array of inventor networks across the state — along with groups in Detroit, Lansing, Flint, Jackson and Scottville — that provide innovators a safe place to turn for advice and to network with people who have been through the same process and can point them down the right path.

“The magic is that they can go there and immediately have a sense that these are people who want to help one another and give them the truth about an idea,” said Crain, a partner in Klever Innovations that has sold more than 8 million Klever Kutters worldwide.

“It’s that warm place where you can get honest advice,” he said.

Crain’s personal vision is to ultimately see 30 inventor networks operating in communities across the state within five years. He’s talked with a group in Kalamazoo that wants to form a network there, but it needs someone or an organization to lead it.

Another possibility is in Battle Creek. Doyle Hayes, the former owner of Pyper Products Corp. and now a business development consultant, is examining the potential for a Battle Creek inventors network.

“We need this down there,” Hayes said following a recent meeting he attended of the Grand Rapids Inventors Network. “People need all kinds of help.”

The potential for a Battle Creek inventor’s network is “in the real infancy stage” of discussion, Hayes said.

In Scottville, a new network got off the ground early this year with the backing of West Shore Community College.

Hosting the West Shore Inventor/Entrepreneur Network is part of the college’s goal to support entrepreneurship across a four-county region, said Julie Van Dyke, director of West Shore’s Business Opportunity Center.

“We thought if we could start an inventors network, it may get people thinking about the ideas in the back of their heads and maybe they can take those dreams and turn them into dollars someday,” she said. “We want to stimulate entrepreneurial thinking.”

The college started the local group after learning about the Muskegon Inventors Network, which often drew people from the Scottville and Ludington area, Van Dyke said. The West Shore network now attracts people from Traverse City and Cadillac.

Like other networks, the West Shore group meets monthly and consists of a loose-knit gathering of professionals who are willing to offer their advice and counsel to inventors. A recent Grand Rapids Inventors Network meeting was populated by several marketing professionals who wanted to offer their expertise to an innovator to promote a new product or to do market research to determine the viability of a new product.

“I’m simply looking for help with everything,” one attendee told the audience.

GRIN, which celebrated its third anniversary in August, is now looking at doing more to help innovators and at “what we do next” as an organization, said Bonnie Knopf, a GRIN board member and the president of Intrepid Plastic Mfg. in Grand Rapids.

“Now it’s getting serious and successful. We need to make sure it grows the right way,” Knopf said.

Essentially a volunteer-driven organization, the Grand Rapids Inventors Network could use the kind of advice its members typically offer would-be innovators. The group needs to examine what the marketplace needs and how it fits in and can align with other local organizations that support innovation and entrepreneurism, Knopf said.

“It’s kind of what we preach. What are we good at? What is our sweet spot and what do we want it to be? What do we want to focus on?” she said. “We can’t be everything to everybody. We have to be our niche thing so we don’t overlap with everybody else.”

Overall, Knopf and others behind GRIN are satisfied the organization has met its intended goal.

“It’s doing exactly what we wanted it to do,” she said. “Hopefully, it’s just going to get better and better and we have a lot more years ahead of us.”

The Grand Rapids Inventors Network meets monthly at Grand Valley State University’s Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences and typically draws 70 to 80 people. Attendees can network with one another for advice but are urged not go give away proprietary details of their ideas.

Monthly meetings usually cover a specific topic. September’s meeting, for example, will offer perspectives on organizations locally that work to help entrepreneurs.

Each monthly meeting is preceded by confidential product reviews where someone can pay $20 and explain their idea to GRIN board members with different professional backgrounds who offer their critiques and advice on how to proceed. Sometimes their response amounts to a reality check for someone who’s convinced they have a great idea and so far has only received feedback from friends and relatives, an adviser group that may not always ask the hard question, Knopf said.

“We’re going to give you real advice. We like to say, ‘We’re not your mom,’” Knopf said. “We’re going to tell you what you need to do.”

In the past year, GRIN hosted an engineering brainstorming session for inventors.

Organizing regular brainstorming sessions on engineering as well as other topics such as marketing and how to secure financing are potential areas for new programming, said Girdwood, GRIN’s current president.

“There’s lots of stuff we can do,” Girdwood said. “What do we want to do?”

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