Sitting on a great idea


CASE STUDY:Luke has come up with an inovative product to help his aging grandmother but, now that he has a working prototype, he must decide whether to stick with his employer or go it alone...

Having completed his degree he went abroad for work experience. Through the university, he found a job with a small furniture design company in Italy which specialised in producing one-off pieces of contemporary furniture, mainly seating. He spent two years there before he landed a job with an Italian-based car seating manufacturer.

Then on a visit home he was shocked to see a big deterioration in his grandmother’s mobility. What had started out as “the odd ache and pain” had become rapidly more debilitating and she had just been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. The pain had forced her stop driving and this in turning was having a negative impact on her busy lifestyle. Luke’s mother had stepped in as chauffeur, but Annie was finding it increasingly difficult to manoeuvre herself into the car seat.

Luke was distressed by the situation and spent hours trawling the internet for something that might help. He found a number of solutions were available but cost and practicality were factors. Adapting his mother’s car would be of no use to Annie’s many friends who were also willing to give her lifts. Trying to get his grandmother into the car one day he had run back to the house for a cushion from the settee to make the seat higher. The cushion helped but it was bulky and not ideal.

Then, watching some kids fall off a lilo during a television ad, Luke had a eureka moment. What was needed to help Annie was a cushion that would sit on the existing car seat but could be inflated to raise the height to make it easier for her to get in and out. Once she was settled, the cushion could be deflated thereby allowing normal operation of the seatbelt and, if needs be, the front seat airbag.

Luke reckoned the cushion could be inflated using a small pump driven off the auxiliary power socket now fitted as standard in most modern cars. Ideally it would also work off the cigarette lighter socket. The more he thought about it, the more Luke could see the market potential for this type of product. In particular it would be suitable for older people, but it would work equally well for a person of any age with compromised mobility.

Luke’s first challenge was to design the pump, but he also set himself two others: the cushion had to be as lightweight as possible and its operation had to be simple. Durability of cushion fabric was also an issue, as was cost. Luke wanted the product to be affordable and easy to transfer from car to car.

He bounced the idea off his boss who gave him positive feedback. He advised Luke to take his time teasing out the technical aspects of the idea to ensure all potential snags were addressed at the outset. He also offered to cast a cold eye over the technical drawings when they were ready.

Luke spent around six months working intensively on his idea in his spare time. Through his contacts in the industry he was able to source sample fabrics and other components, and on a trip home he raided his mother’s attic for her old Singer sewing machine. Luke made up various sizes and shapes of cushion using conventional seating foams and sent them home for his grandmother to try out to test for initial comfort and shape.

With a little help from a friend in the engineering department, Luke sourced a pump mechanism already used in some car seat production. It needed modification but Luke eventually got it to work as he wanted. The time had come to show the finished idea to his boss.

After a long period of looking but saying nothing his boss nodded his head. He pointed out some minor shortcomings in the design but his reaction was positive. He offered to let Luke use equipment in the company’s RD lab to finish off the prototype and suggested he think seriously about presenting it to the managing director as a possible new product.

Luke was elated but his father brought him down to earth with a bang. If Luke wasn’t careful, he said, his idea could end up being hijacked by his employer and Luke might not get any credit for it. He advised Luke to start looking into how best to protect his idea without delay.

This threw Luke into a tailspin. He had no experience of dealing with such matters, but he knew Italian bureaucracy moved slowly and trying to get to grips with it with his modest level of commercial Italian could be a problem.

Suddenly Luke found himself facing the question of where to go from here? While he had seen commercial potential in the idea from early on, he hadn’t thought about how he was going to realise it. The possibility of handing the idea over to his employer had its attractions, not least of which was that Luke could keep working in a job he loved. But the more he thought about it the more the entrepreneurial bug began to bite.

On a trip home he visited his local Enterprise Board where he was encouraged to write a business plan and come back when he had it ready. He did so and found them willing to support him with a feasibility study grant. The board was enthusiastic about his product and indicated that, subject to the outcome of the feasibility study, they would more than likely be able to offer him further support. His parents said he could move back home while he progressed the idea.

Luke is now more confused than ever – he loves his job but he also believes in his product and would like to see it taken further. Realistically he knows there is no way he can do this in Italy so he will have to quit his job and come home with modest savings to sustain him.

He is tempted to stick with the big ship and hand his idea over to his employer to develop, assuming they give him some financial reward for it. He is daunted by the prospect of what is involved in patenting his idea (including the cost) and setting up a manufacturing business. In addition he is not overjoyed by the prospect of having no real income for several years.

He also sees issues around the fact that it’s a single, specialist product and wonders how best to market it. He is also not sure whether he should be producing the product in Ireland or in a lower-cost environment. The jury is still out but Luke feels he has limited commercial experience and limited financial resources and that it would be all too easy to fail.