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Bellingham inventor creates screwdriver to use in tight spaces

Inventor Joel Townsen of Bellingham checks out a display of this Flipout Screwdrivers at Lowe’s.
Inventor Joel Townsen of Bellingham checks out a display of this Flipout Screwdrivers at Lowe’s. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Each month the NW Innovation Resource Center writes about a Whatcom County resident who has invented products that solve everyday problems.

Inventor: Joel Townsen

Product: Flipout Screwdrivers

Hometown: Bellingham

Where to get them: Lowe’s and lowes.com.

Description: A versatile, rechargeable multi-tool that fits into tight spaces with a rotating head with more than 350 positions.

What problem were you trying to fix and how did you come up with the solution?

“I came up with the idea back in 2003 while trying to replace a speaker in the door of my car. The drill I was using wouldn’t fit inside the door panel and the idea hit me: why not invent an electric screwdriver that transforms into different shapes? Power tool companies had been making the same type of products for years – large bulky drills that were difficult to use in confined spaces and offered no versatility whatsoever. I thought if I could incorporate the flexibility of a robotic arm into an electric screwdriver I would be on to something. The first prototype was built using pieces of acrylic for the housing and plastic gears I got out of a robotics mail-order catalog. It wasn’t anything fancy, but it worked and gave me a sense of excitement that drove me to push forward and keep trying harder. “

What did it take in terms of time and effort to go from idea to getting it to market?

“It took me nearly 10 years to get this product to market and a tremendous amount of effort. I ended up dropping out of school in order to work full time, usually 60-plus hours a week to fund my dream. Any spare time I had was often spent working on the latest prototype. The product was fairly involved and had numerous parts. I spent years perfecting it until it actually worked. On top of this, everything was super expensive – patents, prototype parts, CNC machining, injection molding, trade shows, marketing materials – you name it! It all cost money.”

Your path to market was a little different than most since you licensed it – can you explain a little bit about how the process worked for you?

“Licensing is basically where another company makes and sells your product, in return you get a percentage of the net profits. It’s a good route for inventors who have a great product idea but aren’t sure how to go about manufacturing it themselves or how to deal with retailers. For me, landing a licensing deal was extremely difficult. I took part in trade shows and contests, applied to present my product on Shark Tank, and pitched every company under the sun trying to secure a licensing deal. The turning point for me was after I launched the product through crowdfunding — after the campaign ended, I received several emails from big-name power tool companies who were interested. In the end, I hooked up with a manufacturing company out of Seattle and together we pitched Lowe’s for a DRTV deal. Before I knew it, Flipout had its own TV commercial and we sold hundreds of thousands of units in a matter of months.”

What was the biggest challenge you faced?

“The biggest challenge I faced was overcoming the enormous costs involved with prototyping. When I started this project, affordable desktop 3D printers were not readily available. Since I was designing a hand-held power tool, I went through a lot of different variations to make it work properly and fit comfortably in the hand. Nowadays, I just print the parts on my 3D printer and it costs me $1-2 per part, as opposed to $50-100 per part.”

What is the one piece of advice you would give to other aspiring inventors?

“My advice to any aspiring inventor is to take that first step and build a prototype, even if it’s made out of cardboard... the point is we all have to start somewhere. Anything that will help you get a sense for how a product looks, feels, and works.”

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.

INVENTOR INSIGHTS

Rod Proctor, a retired CEO of multiple telecommunications and biotechnology companies, will speak about the road to manufacturing. at the Inventor Insights event from noon to 1:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 6 at 2211 Rimland Drive, Room 106. The event is free, but register in advance at nwirc.com/events, or call 360-255-7870.

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