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American Inventor, Episode 3

From a toe-shaped jam dispenser to a new-and-improved tooth flosser, the inventions on episode three run the gamut.
March 31, 2006
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/159718

In our previous recaps of episode oneand episode twoof American Inventor, we saw a seemingly inexhaustible lineup of inventors pitching their products--and dreams--to the judges. Tonight's episode and next week's are much of the same.

The show started out patriotically in Washington, DC with an homage to the American inventing spirit. That same spirit was crushed with the first invention. Admittedly odd, the Perfect Pet Petter is a mechanical dog or cat petter. The box has motion sensors that guide a metallic hand and an audio of your own voice saying sweet nothings to your pooch. The judges were particularly harsh with the inventor, Anthony, and told him "it's a freak-out machine for dogs" (marketing expert Mary Lou Quinlin) and it's "edge of inventing" (inventing guru Doug Hall).

Then the bad was chased with the good: Inventor Robert had created an ingenious little belt that allows the user to do a number of different exercises. I could see it entering the exercise gadget market at a lower price point than its competitors, and its small size make it perfect for folks on the go.

It was at this point where we (myself and my engineering geek boyfriend, Aaron) began to suspect the show's producers were getting a little bored with all these inventing auditions: When Doug tried out the device, sexy music started playing and the camera shifted between Doug working out and soft-focus images of Mary Lou. It was humorous, given Mary Lou and Doug's fiery exchanges on past episodes, but it was definitely on the odd side.

Next, the show moved to New York City where Dan Shaloub, brother of actor Tony Shaloub, was pitching his Sha-Poopie, a little disposable box on a stick that you use to catch your dog's mess. The judges were grossed out by the concept of watching your dog poop, but I thought it was a good idea. Personally, I'd prefer to deal with dog poo from a distance rather than actually having to pick it up with a bag (ick!). But alas, my vote counts for nothing and Dan didn't advance to the next round.

Here's a quick "yes" sequence of inventions that did make the cut but weren't deemed entertaining enough for full audition coverage: an alarm clock that bounces around the room, a glove that helps kids play basketball, and the really neat Take-a-Seat, a love-seat style chair that attaches to a tailgate. What a great idea, and that name should go down in the annals of amazingly clever product names.

The rejection of the new-and-improved "preemptive pooper-scooper" made the approval of the next invention all the more painful. Rhona--whom I don't think will be offended if I call her a "little old lady"--had the demeanor of a schoolmarm and had created disposable paper sheets. The thinking behind the idea wasn't terrible--hospitals and nursing homes could use them. But it really appeared that all she did to create her sample was to take out the liner of a diaper.

Show co-creator and entrepreneur Peter Jones was just not having it, he began a strange repartee with Rhona that was part flirting/part scolding. When Mary Lou and ad expert Ed said yes to the invention, Peter actually did a spit take and threw the paper sheet on the floor in exasperation. (This is where the scolding happened.) Doug was the deciding vote; he recalled that his daughter always tells him to believe in miracles and, against his better judgment, said "yes."

Aaron and I were groaning aloud now. The back-and-forth between Rhona and Peter was amusing, but the sheets just didn't seem worthy of next-round advancement. This really felt like an arbitrary decision based on the camera-worthiness of the inventor, not the invention itself. (Though to give the producers and judges credit, if camera-worthiness were all it took, the 14-year-old boy inventor from episode one surely would've made the grade.)

After a commercial break, the show took us to San Francisco, which host Mark Gallant called "a hotbed of innovation." The first inventor up to bat was Mark, a quadriplegic man who had created a question-mark-shaped tooth-flossing device that pivots to help reach tight spots. Of course, the maudlin music was brought out, which felt unnecessary here. Mark didn't need our sympathy; his invention stood on its own. Doug was particularly impressed by Mark's better mousetrap approach to flossing, and Mark moved on to the next round.

Then came the Temptress Bra, a specially designed brassiere for women with breast implants. It's a smart idea with a market that increases every year, but the idea didn't pass muster.

Next came the requisite "no" montage with goofier inventions: hats for your fingers to protect acrylic nails, a disposable cat litter box that was seriously just a cardboard box, a fake animal tail that could be found at any costume shop, a body-writing pen that somehow involved ice and heat, and was both creepy and a bit lascivious.

Then came the most awesomely bad invention we've seen thus far. Richard, a serious-looking retiree, had created the ToeJam: It's a baby-doll foot stuffed with jam. Richard had poked holes in it so that when you squeeze it, it plops jam on your bread from between the toes. It was disgusting and funny, but Doug said it was "a gimmick not an invention."

Chris invented the Bed Plate, a rather ingenious item. It's a paper plate with a built-in cup holder, which would be great for parties, picnics or potlucks. Everyone liked the idea, but Doug said it would cost a fortune to produce. It was a valid complaint because if your invention is too expensive to produce at a reasonable price point, you're doomed. But the other judges didn't want to quash it at this point, and Doug got outvoted.

This led into another pick-on-Doug montage titled Mr. Know-It-All with sound bites from the countless times Doug's mentioned that he's worked with certain inventions, materials and markets. (Remember, this is the guy who is said to have invented so many products that the average American household has at least 15 at any one time.)

It was an ironic segment, especially when juxtaposed against the next audition. Michael was so affected by a TV show he saw on an ice drowning that he created a new rescue device. The Rescue Disk is thrown like a Frisbee and contains 50 feet of rope coiled within. Doug asked Michael rather rudely if he'd ever fallen through ice; Michael hadn't, but Doug had--and in Antarctica of all places. Is there anything this guy hasn't done? It seemed like a good idea, but Doug and Peter said no. Peter didn't see a good buoyancy factor, and Doug was never really able to voice his reasons, which is disappointing.

Edward was the next inventor whose audition was presented to draw the tears. He's a former teacher who's spent two years of his life and $80,000 on a word game that teaches kids to spell. Edward was crying, Mary Lou was crying, the sappy music was playing. Edward particularly got to Ed, who said yes quite passionately. But Doug disagreed; he felt the game market's saturated by giants and Edward wouldn't be able to break in. He even said this show wasn't "the American sob story." (Tell that to the producers, Doug.) Ed was livid, but it was up to Peter to cast the final vote. He also agreed with Doug regarding the market but believed in Edward as an inventor with passion and provided the third "yes." The game did seem like the type of product that could be expanded on with the right brain behind it--like that of a passionate former teacher.

And that's all, folks! Next week is the last round of inventing auditions. Then we'll finally discover how American Inventor will narrow down all those creative folks who made it to the second round.