Each month the NW Innovation Resource Center writes about a Whatcom County resident who has invented products that solve everyday problems.
Inventors: Mary Jothen and Tom Scanlan
Product: M.T. Totes
Product: M.T. Totes – a clever play on words for a clever product. M.T. (Mary and Tom) as well as “empty,” because they are only empty until you fill them. The sustainable wooden beverage tote goes together without nails or glue.
How did you come up with your idea?
“We were heading to a friend’s birthday dinner and had stopped by the market to buy a selection of different beers, essentially building a unique six-pack. But a bag full of beer bottles as a gift just did not cut it. I wanted something that would actually be part of the gift and remain long after the beer was gone — kind of like a gift that would keep on giving. We played around with the idea and came up with a tote that is rather unique since it slips together without the need for glue or nails. This also made it collapsible, which we thought would be great for display and shipping. Not to mention it is fun: It goes together like a puzzle, except you won’t get stumped! After the first beer version, we needed a wine one, then a coffee version and from there a whole fleet was born, including a 2-bottle growler, which is our most recent addition.”
What made you decide you wanted to go forward with the idea?
“We originally gave them as gifts to friends and family and everyone really liked them. People especially loved the way they are put together, the sleek design, and how functional they are. You can carry a lot of different things in them. We also felt that they are right in line with the current trend towards reusable packaging. Living in bag-free Bellingham, it seemed like a pretty good market in which to try them out. Another turning point was when a friend recommended NW Innovation Resource Center to us. Getting solid advice and having an adviser was very encouraging in sticking with the idea. This past holiday we were featured on the “Today Show,” which was also very validating. They chose our totes amid a sea of similar products on Etsy. This created a very busy 2015 Christmas season, a full two years from the first bunch we made for friend- and family-Christmas gifts in 2013. “
What did it take in time, effort and expense to go from idea to prototype to market?
“The very first tote made was definitely a process. As simple as the finished product looks today, developing the design and how it all fits together snug and secure took a lot of experimentation. We (Tom) probably played around with it in our (his) spare time for about nine months before making the first bunch for Christmas gifts. Once we actually started using them, we found we needed to tweak the design and make adjustments, mostly to accommodate different bottle sizes. We started selling online the following spring, laboriously hand-cutting pieces with a jig. Eventually we were able to have them made on a CNC Router, which helped reduce manufacturing time, but it wasn’t until we moved to using the laser cutter at the Bellingham Foundry Makerspace, approximately a full year later, that things began to click. The laser became a game changer for how we did things, not only could we cut quickly and precisely, but it allowed us to start doing personalized totes with any logo, name, picture someone wanted. Overall we’ve been fortunate to keep our expenses low and test the market and make small quantities. However, we find ourselves at a very excited point where we are ready to take it to the next level and purchase our own equipment.”
Anything else you want to add?
“One of the great things that has happened is to hear that the totes are finding their way to handicapped, elderly and nursing home residents. They are a great way to carry beverages from the dining hall or kitchen to other rooms of the residence. Makes it easy for those with a cane or who feel unstable to transport their drinks without spilling.”
Lara Merriam-Smith is the program manager for NW Innovation Resource Center, a Bellingham-based non-profit that helps inventors and entrepreneurs bring their ideas to life. For more information call 360-255-7870 or go online to nwirc.com.
Jerry LaChapelle will speak about entrepreneurial ingenuity he used to build multiple business at the Inventor Insights event from noon to 1:30 p.m., Wednesday, March 2 at 2211 Rimland Drive, Room 106. The event is free, but register in advance at nwirc.com/events, or call 360-255-7870.