Camas, Wash.-based Shane Chen was two decades into running his company, CID, when he became bored with designing electronic instruments for environmental researchers. He started toying with other inventions. Five years ago, he sold CID to devote all his time to what had been a side project called Inventist, dedicated to bringing his gadget dreams to life.
Chen doesn’t see any limitations on what he can invent. Most of his creations come out of his personal life -- an avid speed skater and windsurfer, he started with recreational human-transport gadgets, then moved into kitchen items, thanks to his love of cooking. “I like to come out with ideas that are completely out of the blue, completely new concepts,” he says. His love of speed skating was the basis for one of his most popular products, the transport device Solowheel. It has one wheel between two foot rests and runs on a rechargeable battery with gyro sensors and a motor; balance is controlled by software. To steer, the rider simply leans in the direction he wishes to go. Though used mostly for fun in the U.S., the Solowheel, which goes up to 10 mph, has taken off as a “last mile” commuting tool in China and Europe -- commuters get off the subway or bus and Solowheel their way to work.
Chen’s creations, which span a variety of price points, are sold at inventist.com, through specialty catalogs such as Skymall and via distributors in Europe, Australia and China. Some products, Chen admits, sell far better than others, although he declines to disclose revenue. Top sellers include the Solowheel and the Hovertrax, a two-wheeled skateboard-like unit; each wheel has a motor, gyro sensor, balancing software and accelerometer. Both sell for $1,495. Other inventions include Orbitwheels, which has a separate wheel for each foot and is described as a cross between a skateboard and inline skates ($100); Aquaskipper, which allows users to “jump” on water ($495); and the Lunicycle ($149), which shortens the time it takes to learn to ride a unicycle to half an hour. Chen predicts that his next hot item will be a kitchen tool called the Ultradrainer, for which he has already scored coveted programming on QVC. With 20 different uses -- including straining, steaming and marinating -- the product was a quick hit during a 10-minute test run on the shopping network, selling 15,000 units at $20 per two-piece set.
Inventist does very little marketing, and Chen relies on third parties to do much of the selling. Chen says the company also benefits from customers who make YouTube videos that showcase his products. The videos -- which often go viral -- help potential users get over the fear hump that commonly accompanies new ideas. Even Edison, Chen says, had to educate people to get them to start flipping on light bulbs instead of lighting up oil lamps.
One of the most challenging aspects of the invention game, Chen says, is dealing with knockoffs. There are already more than 150 copycat versions of Solowheels, and 20 of Hovertrax. “We try to stop them, but they don’t listen,” he says. The knockoff market has gotten so crazy, he points out, that even the granddaddy of transport gadgets, Segway, was acquired earlier this year by Ninebot, a Chinese company that got its start by copying -- you guessed it -- Segway.
Anxious to spend more time inventing and less time on business, Chen recently began talks with some (undisclosed) major brands in hopes they’ll license his products. Indeed, at press time, he was in the process of signing a deal with Mark Cuban to license Hovertrax. He hopes Inventist’s future will allow him to be all about new ideas and less about marketing or manufacturing. His devotion to following through on ideas is indeed impressive. “If I think the idea is going to work, I’ll do anything to make it,” he says. “The best investment you can make is in your own idea.”