The Song of the PowerSquid: The Inside Story of the Life of an Invention Part 4

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Hello, my name is Christopher Hawker. I am a professional inventor, specializing in innovative consumer products. My company is called Trident Design, LLC. I have developed many products in numerous industries and have over 20 products on the market. My most famous invention is the PowerSquid, a cephalopod-inspired power strip with outlets situated at the end of short cords, thereby eliminating the problem of losing outlets to bulky transformer plugs. John Biggs, editor-in-chief of this blog, has asked me to write the story of the birth of the PowerSquid and its development and journey to market. This is the Song of the PowerSquid.

Part 4: Engineering

With signed licenses in hand, Power Sentry began developing the products for production. They decided to start with a non-surge-protecting outlet multiplier version of the PowerSquid, and an adapter version of the Ejector Plug that could retrofit existing cords. They worked with a factory in China to translate our design concepts into real products that could be manufactured. We were sent occasional updates on the PowerSquid as the engineers tried various methods for handling the interior wiring, which was complicated by the fact that there were so many cords coming into the enclosure. Six cords (one coming in and five going out), each with three conductors, meant there were 18 cords that had to be soldered in a very small space, with consistent quality and reliability. We suggested a bus-system, where the wires would be soldered to three metal bars. This was eventually chosen as the most cost-effective method. This problem sorted out, the tooling process began. Four months later, we saw the first sample. The Ejector Plug went through its own engineering process in parallel. We received samples of it shortly after the PowerSquid.

Next, the products had to go through Underwriter’s Laboratory (UL) testing. UL evaluates products based on established specifications for each type of product to determine the design is safe and won’t kill or injure users if operated correctly or incorrectly. Many items you buy at the store have a UL sticker, as most major retailers will not accept certain products (especially high-voltage items) without certification. Many people think that UL is a governmental organization, but it is a for-profit business. The PowerSquid became the unfortunate center of an internal dispute, as different offices of UL argued over whether it should be tested as a power cord or as a power strip, having features of both. The answer to this was very important, as the power cord specifications called for no more than three outlets and precluded a switch! We insisted it was a variation of a power strip, and that the specifications were supposed to help determine what type of product is being evaluated, not control the design of the product itself. To call it an extension cord would be a serious case of specious logic.

In the end, wisdom prevailed, and the PowerSquid was tested as a “new and unusual” power strip, the “new and unusual” designation adding many thousands of dollars and months to the process. And a process it was, as the product had issues with cord strain relief. When the cords were yanked, it would cause strain to the internal solder joints. It turns out the clamping force of the shell, which was sufficient when there was only one cord, like in a normal power strip, was not enough when spread over six cords. So more engineering needed to be conducted, ultimately leading to a redesign where the five outgoing cords were molded together with a block of plastic that was trapped inside the case. This made the product a little larger, required modifying the molds and added several more months, as the testing had to start over. Eventually, a year and half after testing began, the PowerSquid received UL certification.

The Ejector Plug’s adventures at UL changed it, too. After we sent it in, it was sent back and we were told that it had to be redesigned so that the lever was larger, in order to completely cover the top outlet of a wall outlet, if it was placed in the bottom outlet. This prevented a partially blocked outlet which someone could try and still use, which is a fire and shock hazard. This required a redesign which made the final unit bulky and unattractive, but Power Sentry decided to push forward with the new design and resubmitted it, once again as a “new and unusual” product.

Many other events transpired during the certification process. First, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) rejected the application for the PowerSquid name! There was a large company called Thomas and Betts, which already owned the trademark “Squid” for a power connector. Thomas & Betts makes transmission equipment for power stations and cross-country power lines. Its “Squid” was a similar device to ours, except it was for 10,000 volts and had cords thicker than ropes. We didn’t tell Power Sentry this news while we spent months trying to come up with an equally good name, but we couldn’t hit on anything we liked. We had settled on “Power Spider”, though we truly felt that it wasn’t nearly as good of a brand. When we shared the new name with Power Sentry, we were told that without “PowerSquid” they would renegotiate our contract! The name was part of the deal. They were not happy, and neither were we.

Desperate, I called Thomas & Betts. I figured it was hopeless. This was a huge and probably heartless corporation. How was I going to get to the right person? Nevertheless, I had to try. So I called the main line and asked for the legal department. Two minutes later I was on the phone with the chief legal counsel, and, 10 minutes later, I had an agreement to use the name! Unbelievable! Thomas & Betts even signed a contract for us to submit to the USPTO. Disaster was averted through a stroke of luck and a healthy dose of goodwill. Thank you Thomas & Betts!

Next, the USPTO rejected our patents for both the PowerSquid and Ejector Plug. This is not unusual. The majority of patents are rejected on the first pass because they are written as broadly as possible and then whittled down based on feedback from the patent examiner. Our contract with Power Sentry stipulated that if the patents were ever to receive a final rejection, our royalty would be dramatically reduced, so we were motivated to obtain them. We adjusted our applications and re-submitted them. This revised PowerSquid patent was eventually granted and issued. The Ejector Plug patent had to go through the process twice more! Legal fees were piling up.

While all of this was happening, my business stalled. We had struggled for years, fighting both a sagging economy and our own inexperience. We were trying to survive until the PowerSquid and Ejector Plug were on the market and generating royalties. But then we lost a contract on a major project with our biggest fee client, and that was the last straw. I had to lay off my staff, shut down the office, sell the furniture and equipment, and move back into my house to avoid bankruptcy. They were scary and stressful times.
Fortunately, I had enough revenue from the algae scraper business to nurse my wounds and slowly pay off my debt. I continued to work smaller projects with another designer (who worked on spec) and waited for the PowerSquid and Ejector Plug to launch. Without the overhead and business to run, I started to relax and enjoy myself. During this time, I went to Maui for a two-week meditation retreat, and there I met my future wife, Sommer Renaldo, a graphic designer who was living in Florida. We fell in love and decided to move to Santa Cruz, Calif., together.

We were in Santa Cruz when the PowerSquid finally came to market: five years, many struggles, numerous delays and a near bankruptcy later. Oddly enough, the first store in the country to carry the PowerSquid was a local independent hardware store just down the street in Santa Cruz. I knew from Power Sentry that some had been sold to a few stores in my area, and then a friend told me he’d seen them on the shelf. I immediately went down and there they were!

At last! I bought three. I still have one in its original package. This is my favorite moment as an inventor – walking into a store and buying one of my products. It’s a profound and private moment for me, as it closes a process that can take up to five years. One of my frustrations with my job is how long it takes to find out if the years of effort invested in a project pay off. The cause and effect relationship is often hard to grasp and the results of decisions are delayed by months or years, making it difficult to adjust course as needed. Buying one of my products for the first time “in the wild” is the ultimate in delayed gratification.

Christopher Hawker, an inventor specializing in innovative consumer products, is founder of Trident Design, LLC in Columbus, Ohio. He is the author of “Inventor’s Mind: 10 Steps to Making Money From your Inventions”, a free e-book available at Invent-Shop.com. He will be hosting his first InventShop Inventor’s Workshop in October 2009 for serious inventors who want to learn his inventing system.

This is part 4 of a 6 part series. Read them all here.

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