ROBERT SMITH, host:
In 1948, a Swiss engineer who liked to hike found some dry, prickly seeds stuck to his socks. He studied them and invented Velcro.
Today a Chicago company is helping businesses around the world to discover their own prickly seeds, materials and technologies that could make their products better.
Sandy Hausman has that story.
SUSAN HAUSMAN: Six years ago, at the age of 22 with a freshly minted degree in mechanical engineering, Zach Kaplan had an idea. He would scout trade shows around the world, comb the Internet and look for cool new materials and technologies. Then, Kaplan would share these things with clients so they could improve their products or invent new ones.
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Mr. ZACH KAPLAN (President, Inventables): This is a whistle buckle. If you work in a company that manufactures backpacks or life jackets, you're probably aware of this technology. But if you work in a company that manufactures stopwatches, you might not be.
HAUSMAN: But a stopwatch that starts when a built-in whistle's blown, then stops when it's blown again could be just the thing to boost some sporting goods company's sales.
Next, Zach Kaplan picks up a piece of paper, but it's not just any piece of paper.
Mr. KAPLAN: It's totally thin, just like a postcard. But the unique part is you can record a message.
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Mr. KAPLAN: …is you can record a message.
HAUSMAN: This technology combines a paper-thin speaker, battery and recordable chip. A small card is attached, telling how it works and how it could help clients make small or big improvements to their products. Inventables calls it stepping, stretching or leaping forward.
Mr. KAPLAN: The step idea for this is record audio clips with photos, then print the photo on the paper. The stretch idea would be use it in parking garages, so you incorporate it into little ticket and then you can remember where you parked. And the leap idea is to add audio clips to advertisements in newspapers or magazines.
HAUSMAN: Four times a year, Kaplan's company, Inventables, delivers a collection of items to clients for display on a special kiosk known as the Innovation Center.
At Radio Flyer, a company that makes wagons and ridable toys, vice president Tom Schlegel says innovation has always been important. This year, the small family-owned firm won the Academy Award of the toy industry, a TOTY, for its foldable trike.
To sustain creativity and keep the company on top, Radio Flyer subscribes to Inventables.
Mr. TOM SCHLEGEL (Vice President, Product Development, Radio Flyer): Each week, we pick a technology from the Inventables' Innovation Center. We bring it to the whole group and we research it and talk about it, and then see how can we apply it to our products.
HAUSMAN: Subscribers pay up to $250,000 a year, and for some, the investment really pays off. Take Griffin Technologies, a small firm that developed and sold tens of thousands of iTrips, FM transmitters that allow people to play tunes from their iPod Nano in the car. The challenge was how to attach the iPod to the iTrip without detracting from its sleek design. Inventables had just the thing.
Mr. KAPLAN: You're familiar with suction cups, right? Well, this was a tape just like normal tape, except for the fact that instead of being sticky, it had micro-suction cups on there.
HAUSMAN: There are at least a dozen companies like Inventables founded to help firms innovate. Henry Chesbrough, executive director of the Center for Open Innovation at UC Berkeley, says these consultants are beginning to replace the traditional corporate model for research and development, a model that required companies to develop their own materials and technologies.
Dr. HENRY CHESBROUGH (Executive Director, Center for Open Innovation at UC Berkeley): The problem with the old model was it took too long and it was too inefficient, meaning you had to kiss a lot of frogs before you would find the prince.
HAUSMAN: The new approach is more collaborative, so breakthroughs can come faster. And since many technologies are already proven in other industries, the failure rate is lower. Chesbrough warns, however, that companies must know what problems they're hoping to solve when working with consultants like Inventables.
Dr. CHESBROUGH: If you don't know where to look, you can just be dazzled but ultimately distracted by all the possible stuff that's out there.
HAUSMAN: And how does Inventables keep its staff on track? Kaplan gives all five employees cash from what's called the exploration budget. It can be used for any thing or experience that makes them more creative.
For NPR News, I'm Sandy Hausman.
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