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<i>American Inventor</i>, Episode 6 Three inventors are given $50,000 and four weeks to develop their products. Who will make it to the ultimate finals?

By Laura Tiffany

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

ABC ran two full episodes of American Inventor again. On philosophical grounds, I'm refusing to recap the first one--it was yet another rehash of past auditions. To their (small) credit, the producers did throw in a few new scenes (interesting outdoor inventions and kid inventors), but 90 percent of the show was the same ol', same ol'.

On to the real newness: The second hour spotlighted the efforts of Mark (Sackmaster 2000), Sheryl (Un-Brella) and Erik (Receivers Training Pole) to further develop their products. As three of the 12 finalists, each was given $50,000 and four weeks to work on product development. In this episode, we're told that ad guru Ed Evangelista has chosen this trio as his group of inventors to mentor. He'll coach them, and it will ultimately be his decision who will go on to become one of the final four. (The $1 million winner will be chosen by the American public from that final group of four.)

First, we're shown a quick introduction to the inventors at home. Erik is from Detroit. He works in a factory and helps run his family gym, which is his true passion. Times have been hard on his family; his house is in foreclosure and he's behind on his gym rent payments. Sheryl is from Van Nuys, California; she lost her job, and her invention is all she has to work on. Mark, a handyman from Chino, California, sold his family's larger house and bought a smaller one to raise money to pursue his inventing dream.

Ed met with Erik first to express his concerns about the Receivers Training Pole and give him guidance. Ed's biggest worry was that the product is too nichey; he also asked Erik to be open-minded and to listen to the feedback from the companies he'll be working with. Erik held (or, rather, the producers told him to hold) a focus group. It didn't go well; the focus group didn't understand his product at all. Erik then sought design and prototype help from a product design and marketing group. Later, while working on a logo design, Erik received a call from home: His gym was about to be evicted from its location.

Next up for Ed's mentoring prowess was Sheryl. He told her she needed to get a working prototype and that her product name had negative connotations. She, too, conducted a focus group and again, the reactions were poor. The participants were concerned that the product was too large and that it wouldn't work. Sheryl was very open to changes, and her design firm gave her mock-ups to choose from, but without her life partner by her side to help, she had a hard time deciding.

Then came Mark. Ed thought he needed another name for his product, a new color ("looks like a toy") and a strap. He also told Mark to be open-minded, but Mark didn't heed his advice at all. The people in the focus group Mark held just didn't get it: They thought the product was too big, and one woman thought she could use it to pick up leaves. Mark was offended that they didn't understand his life-saving goals. He also met with a design firm but ended up firing them when they wanted him to make design changes. He felt his design was 95 percent done, and he didn't need their help.

Back to Erik: He approved his logo design, but back at home, things were only getting worse--his wife told him the car was broken. His positive attitude was amazingly unchanged, however. Erik is truly an inspiration: No matter what goes wrong, he's got a smile and a good thought. He said no matter what happened, he considered this a "beautiful journey."

Sheryl called the process "a crash course in getting an invention made." Hers was the only peek into how incredibly complex the prototype process can be. A tear rolled down her cheek when she saw her idea become an actual product.

Mark decided to take his shovel to a plastics company to get the color changed. Then he spent $2,500 buying a new suit and fixing himself up. This is killing me. The confidence that made Mark so likeable and one of my favorite inventors in the audition process is turning to disaster-level arrogance.

The Presentations
At this point, the prototype/development stage was over and the inventors had to present their final products to the judges. Each played a video showing their products being tested by consumers. This was actually one of the most interesting aspects of the show so far: seeing these ideas take life in the hands of users.

Erik took his Receivers Training Pole (which had become a beautifully rendered product in the hands of his design firm) to a Granada Hills, California, high school. The players on the high school football team used it to train with, and they showed some skill improvement during their next game. (For me, a non-football person, this is the part that made me finally understand how the product works.)

Again, the judges were concerned about mass appeal and Erik said that he knew it would work because parents will do anything to give their teens any advantage to get into college on a scholarship. Personally, I think he should focus more on the high-school and college markets: Nearly every high school and many colleges in the United States have a team--that would be a huge market for him. Erik also mentioned that he's had to claim bankruptcy; the judges were flabbergasted. But again, Erik showed his positive attitude and said he's just a normal guy "pulling himself up by his bootstraps."

Sheryl renamed her product the In-Brella (clever), and her testing video showed the product being tested at the Santa Anita Racetrack in California. Sheryl and staff set up a huge rain machine and asked passers-by to try getting in a car with a normal umbrella and then with the In-Brella. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, her prototype didn't have a finished launching mechanism. Though some testers liked it, the In-Brella failed twice during the testing, and some people complained it was still too large. After her presentation was finished, the judges complained that her product was still too cumbersome, but inventor Doug Hall said that it's "new to the world."

Finally, Mark presented the Sackmaster. He'd added a strap, got a really nice package designed for the shovel, and dropped the "2000" from the product name. He took his product to New Orleans for testing. He pitted a professional relief team filling sandbags the old-fashioned, two-person way against a normal family using the Sackmaster. The amazing results showed that after just 15 minutes, the family had filled 119 sandbags and the pros had only filled 87. However, the judges called Mark out on his attitude, on the fact that he'd only spent $20,000 of the $40,000 total, and that the strap wasn't even professionally done. Entrepreneur Peter Jones said Mark should've spent all the money and had millions of units of the product ready to ship immediately.

The Decision
Ed gave each inventor a small speech about what he initially thought of their invention and them. But really, what matters here is who's moving on. Let's not mince words: It's gotta be Erik!

Mark really didn't utilize his resources well (Ed mentioned that he seemed to have spent $20,000 on a cardboard box), and Sheryl's invention still needed more work. Erik was the obvious choice: His product looked ready to ship, and his attitude and drive are stellar.

The winner and losers were shown going home to their families, and for Mark and Sheryl, it was really depressing. I'm very curious to find out if this show will provide them the publicity they need to still get their products out in the marketplace. I'm especially positive that Mark's Sackmaster will hit the shelves eventually. And Sheryl's In-Brella is a great idea if she can get the design compact enough to fit in a purse or bag.

Of course, Erik's homecoming was incredibly happy. It couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.

Coming Next Week
It's marketing master Mary Lou Quinlan's turn to be mentor, and the three inventors she chooses are Darla, the multilingual doll designer; Jerry, the inventor of a portable gym system; and Francisco, who created the Double-Traction bike.

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