As inventions go, Jake Zien’s was a clever fix rather than an imaginative breakthrough: Irritation was the mother of his invention.
He found the standard power strip maddening because electric plugs would often block the adjacent sockets. So after his senior year in high school, while attending a summer program at the Rhode Island School of Design, he devised an adjustable power strip that solved that problem. But his product concept — a brief description, drawings and a crude mock-up — went nowhere until he was a senior in college. At that point, he sent digital versions of his sketches to a start-up called Quirky.
Quirky’s designers and engineers refined the concept. “They made it a much more elegant solution,” he said. Quirky also handled the manufacturing and marketing, secured a patent and listed Mr. Zien as the lead inventor. A year later, in 2011, the snakelike adjustable strip, Pivot Power, was on its way to store shelves.
Mr. Zien, 25, now gets a few cents on the dollar for every Pivot Power sold. A software designer in New York, Mr. Zien has collected more than $700,000, and counting.
This flexible power strip is the biggest hit so far for Quirky, founded in 2009. The company, based in Manhattan, is a curious creation of the Internet era, a hybrid of the digital and physical worlds. It is a social network, an online retailer and an industrial designer, manufacturer and marketer.
Ben Kaufman, the company’s 28-year-old founder and chief executive, calls it “a modern invention machine,” whose mission is to commercialize product ideas.
Quirky is Exhibit A for the case that a digital-age renaissance of the small inventor is not only possible but underway. The company taps an online community of one million registered users. More than 400 Quirky-generated products have made it to the marketplace so far.
The company is also a laboratory for testing how far the crowd-based model of innovation and product development can go. Quirky’s ultimate goal, Mr. Kaufman insists, is to create an engine that accelerates the process of identifying and developing new ideas for all kinds of products. “I’d like Quirky to be a utility like electricity,” he said.
Investors are betting that Quirky can build a sizable business. The company has raised $185 million to date. General Electric, the nation’s largest manufacturer, has put in $30 million, as part of a partnership to experiment with faster-paced models of manufacturing. The rest of the money has come mainly from venture capital firms, including Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Andreessen Horowitz.
Read more: The Invention Mob, Brought to You by Quirky
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