BELLINGHAM - Pondering ideas at a café is a common practice in the Pacific Northwest, and Mark King is coming up with some handy answers to perplexing problems.
King appears to have come through with a solution for food-giant General Mills on its granola bar products, the latest in what's been a string of ideas for the Bellingham inventor. Many of these ideas have popped into his head while he's hanging out at The Woods Coffee in the Flatiron building.
How a Whatcom County resident can come up with a solution for a mega-company headquartered in Minneapolis is a testament to how small the Internet has made this world. King was in the coffee shop one day three years ago and, looking for some inspiration, typed "inventor friendly companies" into a search engine. Up came General Mills' Worldwide Innovation Network page, also known as G-WIN. The program invites inventors to suggest solutions to problems the company regularly comes across.
King's first submission was for a different way of opening a can, which didn't catch fire at General Mills. He then came across the problem of the cereal bar products: General Mills was looking for a consistent way to test the texture of its granola bars, a surprisingly complex process.
"They want to know that the granola bar they test in the factory is the same as the one a customer buys at a store," King said. "But one out-of-place peanut can mess up the granola bar."
When King saw the problem, an idea popped in his head within five seconds. He started drawing it out.
"Everyone's minds work differently and somehow it just clicked," King said. "I got lucky in many ways with this."
King sent in his idea. General Mills was intrigued, but it was a difficult concept to explain over the phone so they asked him to build a prototype. He said sure, but then realized he didn't have the knowledge on some aspects of mechanical design needed to construct the prototype. The 21-year-old has experience from working as a machinist at Bellingham's Pro CNC and has studied at Bellingham Technical College.
He decided to pull an all-nighter, spending 14 straight hours learning about product design, then went to work on the prototype. He sent it in and said officials at General Mills liked it. A few researchers also approved: They joked they were tired of testing the cereal bars by eating them.
King can't give many details about the idea now that it's basically a trade secret, but he did say it works within General Mills' manufacturing process. The prototype broke when General Mills officials tried to install it, so they flew King into the headquarters to fix it.
The company is now taking it through a lengthy test period, and if officials still like it they may have King build more of them for each General Mills factory.
"What this General Mills project did is prove to me that where I want to be is an inventor," King said.
He has other ideas that he's been working at getting to market. One is a metal and fabric wallet called Trayvax. It has a variety of functions while remaining compact: Along with holding money and credit cards, the wallet has a bottle opener and hooks to hold shopping bags. It's also surprisingly comfortable to put in the back pocket of pants. It even protects cards from unauthorized radio frequency identification scans.
"(The wallet) is geared toward the tech and outdoor person; it's rugged and stylish," he said.
The wallet runs for $24.99 and can be purchased online at trayvax.com. As demand grows, he's hoping to get the wallet into outdoor retail stores.
He's also working on a portable vegetable juicer, one that blends vegetables right in the cup without making a mess.
His ideas are already drawing national attention. Last month he was featured in a detailed article in the New York Times.
The fact that after years of trying to figure out what he wanted to do, choosing "inventor" as a career is an exciting prospect for King.
"It's not difficult for me, but it is a lot of work," King said. "You're putting yourself in a lot of different situations, but that's how you grow."