The corporate-friendly nonconformist is wagering big that his new Web site will connect inventors with companies and spur innovation. But at $2,000 a pop, who’s gonna buy in?
Editors note: I served as an advisory board member for Doug Hall’s USA National Innovation Marketplace.
By Mike Drummond
Last November on a chilly afternoon, Doug Hall held court with a group of strategic advisors inside his Eureka! Ranch headquarters in Cincinnati.
Showing no ill-effects from the previous night’s tasting and history lesson of rare single-malt Scotch, he padded barefoot to a whiteboard and scrawled “reason to believe” and other concepts related to commercializing new products.
It was the second such session that had included the likes of famed inventor Dean Kamen, buyers from Procter & Gamble, Best Buy and Lockheed Martin, as well as academics and officials from the U.S. Department of Commerce.
We gathered to critique and hone Hall’s latest adventure.
On April 20, Hall officially launched the USA National Innovation Marketplace or NIM, a Web-based means to connect inventors with companies.
In a growing landscape of open-innovation Web portals, Hall envisions his as the gold standard – the ultimate means to help inventors gain credible audience with corporate America and other businesses.
Inventors looking for buyers fill out an exhaustive questionnaire, including IP status, product-development stage, estimated market size and other essential data. The information – or “inputs” in the geeky nomenclature of NIM – is run through Hall’s proprietary “Merwyn Business Simulation,” a process that includes 2.5 million mathematical calculations.
Within days, NIM spits out a four-page report predicting potential market success and is posted on the Web site for companies to review. The report’s results are only as good as the data inventors enter. Based on the quality of the information that goes in, inventors may realize they should give up on the idea, or press ahead. The average concept score is 29 on a scale of 1-100. Don’t quit your day job if your idea scores in the teens.
The report is a color-coded business plan showing royalty rates and projected sales revenues based on various levels of marketing support and other factors. Perhaps most important, it serves as a Rosetta Stone for inventors, enabling them to speak the same language as those in the glass offices.
The cost: $2,000.
NIM will offer a limited number of free reports for inventors every three months through the company’s “Franklin Scholarship” program.
There is no guarantee an inventor’s product will be commercialized. In fact, Hall’s site warns inventors of the massive odds against financial success.
Hall became an entrepreneur at 12 selling magic kits. He worked at Procter & Gamble for a decade as a “Master Marketing Inventor.” He’s author of the national bestseller Jump Start Your Business Brain.
For a man who recreated Robert Peary’s last dash to the North Pole, who served as a judge on ABC’s American Inventor show and who commands six-figure sums to counsel Fortune 500 companies, NIM may be his most ambitious initiative to date.
“It’s quite simply a fulfillment of what I think is my purpose,” he says. “I’ve lived in these two worlds (as an inventor and in corporate America) and I can help these two worlds talk to each other. And they both desperately need each other.”
There’s a hint of altruism.
“I’m half Canadian,” he quips. “So maybe it’s a genetic flaw.”
But make no mistake. Hall is a hard-nosed capitalist who has no patience for indolent inventors unable or unwilling to take the time to research their business goals – and fill out his lengthy online form.
“Even though it asks you for a lot of information, if you don’t have it, that’s a good light-bulb indicator saying you may need to get it,” says Lydia Carson, CEO of skin-care company Balm Innovations.
Carson, who served on the advisory board and was part of NIM’s alpha test, intends to use the program as a paying customer as she grows her business.
NIM requires inventors to input numbers and it provides places to add text.
“One of the things that took me the longest was the character limits” of the text fields, she says. “It forces you to boil down what’s important.”
Hall has leveraged a longstanding relationship with the Manufacturing Extension Partnership or MEP, a creature of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology. Thousands of small and mid-size manufacturers are part of MEP, which has promoted Hall’s “Winning Ways” business seminars as well as spread the word about NIM.
“Inventors on the outside are going to be able to walk into a company with the exact same research that the internal (company) research is being evaluated against,” Hall says. “Think about that. You’re going to be able to show the exact same report. When you’re doing battle with them you’ll truly have a fair shot.”
Robert LeDonne of Colorado invented Touch Sound, a means to experience sounds subtle and sonorous through your hands. Picture feeling each moment Eric Clapton’s guitar pick strikes a string, or sensing the beat of a dragonfly’s wing.
LeDonne talks about how we’re all a “frequency in nature.” How his technology allows one to experience the voice of the universe. Makes for nice poetry. But for a boardroom presentation? Not so much.
LeDonne tried unsuccessfully for years to interest companies in his technology. It didn’t help that one of his representatives was, as he says, bi-polar.
Then came an opportunity to be a free guinea pig in NIM last year.
He has since inked a development deal with Dimensional Innovations in Overland Park, Kansas, which is working to perfect the technology for movie theaters.
“I really don’t think I could have landed this type of connection” without the NIM report, LeDonne says.
Jim Baker, CEO of Dimensional Innovations, says he’s cautiously optimistic about the technology.
“We got the ‘wow’ factor,” he says. “It really enhances the experience of the movie, especially action pictures or rock concerts. It alerts senses to key moments.”
However, Baker says the sound from the technology competes with audio from theater stereo systems – a problem his team is fixing.
A month before NIM’s launch, Hall fields questions from me about the program.
He’s accommodating of queries he’s mulled countless times, despite the pressure of a looming deadline. The only time he demonstrates impatience is when I ask about the $2,000 price tag. It’s not the first time I’ve challenged him on this, but a good question is always worth posing again.
“Amateurs that don’t have any idea what they’re doing, we don’t want you in,” he says. “This is the ante to get into the game.”
The rewards include connecting with innovative-minded companies eager to find new products – with everyone reading from the same reports.
“Make sure you warn inventors,” Hall admonishes toward the end of the hour-long interview, “this is a severe test. You’re most likely to fail. I’m sorry about that. That’s life.”
USA National Innovation Marketplace at a glance
♦ Cost: $2,000 – no refunds.
♦ Businesses can shop for offerings or they can post requests for free.
♦ Free “Franklin Scholarships” are available for qualified inventors.
♦ You don’t have to have a patent to submit an idea. But it’s strongly recommended inventors only disclose their experience, successful test results, testimonials, relevant pedigree, etc. on any submissions published on the site.
♦ Running a research report itself is not a public disclosure.