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American Inventor: Episode 8

In the first of two episodes running together, the Headliner, the Word Ace and the Toner Belt compete for a final place.
May 5, 2006
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/159726

ABC decided to smoosh together the final two spend-your-$50K episodes into one night, so in one fell swoop, the second half of the final four was revealed. Rather than go through the episodes chronologically as I have in the past, I'm going to just tell each inventor's development tale and then reveal who was chosen to move on to the final round.

Entrepreneur and American Inventor co-producer Peter Jones was the mentor this time around. He chose Bobby, creator of the Toner Belt; Jodi, inventor of the Headliner; and Ed, creator of the Word Ace, to guide through the development process.

Bobby is a hockey coach from New York City. After watching his parents suffer from heart problems, he decided to do something about it. He invented the Toner Belt, a simple belt that has two attachments on each side that offer resistance cardio workouts. Peter told him that, while spending his $50K and four weeks on development, to make sure the belt is "idiot-proof" and to focus and not go off on tangents. Bobby's focus group says the belt looks like a kid's toy and doesn't provide much of a workout.

Bobby went to Ewing Design for help, but after a week, he found the design team wasn't meeting his needs and made different modifications to the product than what he requested. He took a big risk by hiring a second design team, splitting his $50,000. This way, he could decide between the two team's different visions. Unfortunately, when both were revealed, they looked almost identical. He chose Ewing's product design, but also used Cirro's (the second firm) package design, which had photos of him using the product. (Not a bad idea--he's a good-looking, charismatic guy who could probably pull off a decent infomercial.)

Then there's Jodi. Twenty years ago, she lost all her hair to alopecia and has created the Headliner, a sweat-wicking wig- and hat-liner, for cancer and alopecia sufferers. Peter told her to concentrate on a larger market, which she hinted at in her last presentation with mentions of firefighters, soldiers and construction workers. Her focus group, for once, actually understood the concept and mentioned the same groups, plus athletes, who could benefit.

Jodi went to T2 Design. Her initial meeting didn't go well--the group was complicating the design, mentioning things like cooling gels and fans. Jodi called them back and told them no "bells and whistles." T2 smartly flew in an expert on panty liners and diapers, products with similar functions as the Headliner. In the midst of her development, she found out she lost her job back home, raising the stakes for her success on the show.

Finally, there was Ed. Peter told him to make his Word Ace, an electronic learning toy, both English- and Spanish-speaking, and to bring "fun" to the product. One little girl in Ed's focus group said she wouldn't play it; another person mentioned that the speaker needed work. Ed visited Patton Design, and came away very upset after learning the design firm would have to dismantle his prototype to build a newer and better one. They discovered that his circuit board would have to be rebuilt, and some of his computer files were missing. Facing failure, he called his mother, tearfully apologizing for never having bought her a house like he once promised.

The Presentations
However, when Ed's product was revealed and he did his presentation, the Word Ace looked gorgeous--a true, high-end player in the game market. He tested it at an after-school program. The kids took a day or two to get used to the game, but once they did, it's all they wanted to play with. Inventor Doug Hall asked Ed about the cost, and was concerned the $50 price tag wouldn't cut it in the competitive game market. Ad guru Ed Evangelista, however, thought it would be huge.

In Bobby's presentation, he explained his two design team method, and Doug thought his backup plan was smart. He took it to a mall (the Block in Orange, California, just a few miles from our Entrepreneur.com offices) to test it out. Some people had a hard time putting it on, but others really felt it would work for them. Bobby said his product is meant to be "cardio for beginners." Doug said he was solving a real problem, but judge Ed said, "I just hope it doesn't end up in the back of a closet."

The final presentation was Jodi. She presented three package designs for three markets: Kids, medical (cancer and alopecia), and active (fire crews, police, etc.). She, too, was asked about price. Each Headliner costs $1 and the judges questioned whether someone would pay $30 a month to wear them. She had two test groups: Women with wigs, and firefighters. Most of the women liked it, and the firefighters definitely thought it worked well to keep the sweat out of their eyes, a real safety concern. Ed thought people would buy it, and Peter was proud of her journey.

The Decision
Then it was time for Peter to make his decision. He wondered if Ed's game was good enough to make it one of the toughest markets. He told Bobby the show was an amazing experience because it allowed him to meet people like Bobby. And he told Jodi that he had "yet to come across anyone as inspiring as you" and that she couldn't have spent the money better.

But alas, she went home. Bobby, too, was out. The winner was Ed, with the Word Ace, because Peter believed that the Word Ace will become "America's best-selling electronic game."

I've got to admit that I didn't see the potential in the Word Ace at first. I didn't really understand how it was played from the first audition, and it seemed a little too dopey to be the best product. But after watching kids play it and seeing the amazing job that Ed and his design team did with the packaging, I get it. I can imagine the Word Ace being carried not only in "smart" stores like the Discovery Channel Store, but also your local Target or even Starbucks. (Remember how Cranium hit it big?)

On to episode 9to see who will be the final inventor in the final four....