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Proto Labs Wants to Help You Create a Cool Prototype for Free

Proto Labs Wants to Help You Create a Cool Prototype for Free
Image credit: Proto Labs

In the future, if you find yourself using Garageio, a device that allows you to open and close your garage door from your smartphone no matter where you are in the world, you will have Maple Plain, Minn.-based Proto Labs to thank. Proto Labs is expected to announce today that it donated prototyping services instrumental to the production of Garageio.

Alottazs Labs, maker of Garageio, is only the latest company to benefit from Proto Labs' Cool Idea! Award program, which started two years ago as a way to help young companies get new gadgets off the ground.

"What we look for is originality and potential benefit to the end user," says Sarah Braun, marketing program manager at Proto Labs and head of the Cool Idea! Award program. "We also look for innate coolness."

That standard has led Proto Labs to award its services to everything from a system of products that allow bar patrons to pour their own beer at the tap to a cost-conscious artificial knee joint for amputees in the Third World.

Proto Labs launched the Cool Idea! Award program in the U.S. in 2011, and expanded it to Europe the following year, at the same time increasing the total annual award from $100,000 to $250,000 worth of services. So far, the company has given out 17 awards. Braun says she reviews applications with Larry Lukis, the founder of Proto Labs, every six to eight weeks.
Sometimes they pick a winner from that batch, sometimes they don't.

Related: Inventor of the Wildly Popular 'Rainbow Loom' Weaves the American Dream With Rubber Bands in a Detroit Basement

What caught Braun's eye about Garageio, she says, is that it solves a common problem better and more cheaply than the alternatives. "How many times have I myself left the home and thought, 'Did I shut the garage door? I don't know,' and I'll have to turn around and go check."

The Garageio unit attaches to your garage ceiling or garage door opener and connects to your Wi-Fi network. Using the related smartphone app, you can open and close your garage door from afar -- "nearly any place in the world," according to a press release. The app lets you control up to three separate doors and grant access to other users, such as your family members.

Alottazs Labs received its award, for services worth about $22,000, earlier this fall. According to a release, it used part of the award to create a test version of Garageio, and the remainder will be used on injection molding when Garageio goes into production.

Although pitch contests, micro-grants and awards from startup incubators are more commonplace in today's entrepreneurial climate than ever before, it's still unusual for a manufacturing company to give away its services. But Proto Labs, which is publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange, with a market capitalization of $1.7 billion, is uniquely able to help inventors take their ideas from the drawing board to the real world.

Proto Labs prides itself on being able to produce metal and plastic parts from a three-dimensional CAD model in as fast as one business day. Clients pay a premium for such speedy service; the typical production time is three business days.

"In this business, speed equals money," Braun says. "People are constantly competing to get a product into the market faster than their competitors."

Alottazs Labs is raising money for Garageio on crowdfunding platform Fundable, and is also taking pre-orders on its website for $129 per device. [http://www.fundable.com/garageio] So far, the company has raised about $17,000 of its $25,000 goal on Fundable, or about 67 percent, with 26 days remaining.

Proto Labs hasn't selected the next award winner yet, but it has plans to further expand the program. In 2014, Braun says, she plans to include outside judges and provide more structure to accommodate them: There will be firm deadlines for applications every two months.

"We really believe that there are some great ideas out there that never make it to market," she says. "We want to provide our services to people that have these cool ideas and help them bring their ideas to life."

Related: 3 Things You Need to Know About Launching a Product Business

Brian Patrick Eha is a freelance journalist and former assistant editor at Entrepreneur.com. He is writing a book about the global phenomenon of Bitcoin for Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Random House. It will be published in 2015.

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