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The business of brainstorms

United States patent number 5,231,973, the single-hand-operated, camshaft-enabled disposable plastic speculum with built-in fluid reservoir, developed in the waning days of the 1980s, will never be remembered as one of the more vital innovations of the dawning digital age. Nor will the same inventor’s bottle for white glue with housing to attach glue stick, developed in 1993 (patent number 5,316,398). Likewise with 2001’s “rotatably disposed” drive mechanism for an oscillating head (6,536,066) or even last year’s behaviour-monitoring toothbrush (application 20090307859; patent pending) that proposes-in a belated nod, perhaps, to the advent of the iPad era-to dole out video game minutes to children who properly brush their teeth.

And yet as unsexy as the business may be, inventor Robert Dickie and his firm, Spark Innovations, are doing just fine. That speculum design sold for cash and royalties to a U.S. medical products company a few years ago. The glue-bottle-and-stick combination, designed for the owner of LePage’s Inc. to introduce high-margin glue sticks to reluctant North American consumers, became a retail hit and helped transform the school and children’s adhesives market. And while the video game toothbrush has yet to find a market, that rotatably disposed oscillating head helped make one of Spark’s spinoff ventures, called BrushPoint Innovations, the top supplier of house brand electric toothbrushes to Walgreens, Shoppers Drug Mart, Loblaws and Zellers. “From a cold start in 1995, we’re the fourth-biggest power toothbrush company in North America,” Dickie says. “And nobody knows our name.”

So it goes for a design and development firm. Spark, run by Dickie and partner Steve Copeland in King City, a bedroom community north of Toronto, will never be a brand name. Rather, the company is devoted to giving the brand names a plump product pipeline.

Dickie is tall, lean and tanned. He wears black jeans and a gold necklace, smells like cigarette smoke (he recently submitted a patent application for something called “Tobacco product packaging for use therewith”) and curses with a level of commitment that even a cattle rustler could admire. While he does talk as quickly, and sometimes as wildly, as you’d expect of a serial inventor, Dickie is also deeply pragmatic. Imagine Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future) crossed with John Wayne’s Ringo Kid, and you’ve got the idea.

Spark’s founding principles sprang from Dickie’s experience as president and CEO of Northern Technologies in the 1980s. At the time, the company, based in Markham, Ontario, was a world leader in high-end video display terminals. Dickie keeps one of its terminals, a pallid grey box save for the blinking of a phosphorescent green cursor, under glass at Spark’s offices as an object lesson in how not to run an innovation business. Each new terminal model cost $2.3 million in research and development just to get to manufacturing, Dickie says. The terminals were so complicated that you could never adequately protect them with patents. (It’s a truism in the business that the simpler an innovation is, the easier it is to protect.)


Right next to the terminal, Dickie keeps a set of black plastic rings that look a lot like gaskets for a garden hose. As humble as they seem, those rings are Dickie’s pride and joy. In 1984, the Federal Communications Commission in the U.S. ruled that computer networking cables had to be shielded to prevent radio interference. While still at Northern, Dickie spent just over $20,000 to develop and patent the plastic rings for this very job-cable connection covers that would fit seven different common sizes. That investment, representing about one one-hundredth of what the company spent to develop its signature products, paid for itself in three months, he says. And then it kept going: Northern Technologies sold billions of them. Northern soon got out of the terminals business altogether and became a connector covers company; it still dominates the field today.

Dickie didn’t stay around to see that happen. Not long after the rings went to market, he resolved to become a full-time inventor and gave Northern his notice. “This is the Spark model,” Dickie says, pointing to the rings. “It’s simple, highly proprietary and something that nobody gives a shit about.”

Spark, which operates largely as a hired-gun product engineering and development firm, is an anomaly in Canada’s business landscape. In its mission to innovate, if not in its size, it stands alongside a handful of world-beaters like RIM and Nortel (in its heyday), and lower-profile players such as Northern Technologies. In contrast to this little cohort, most Canadian companies traditonally have excelled at making the humdrum, and making it to last.

But the rise of offshore manufacturing and global competition has undermined that model. Innovation, design and solid intellectual property protection have become many Canadian companies’ only means of beating the low-cost competition. And so entrepreneurs and companies lacking in-house product development departments increasingly turn to the likes of Spark for help. Canadian firms across all industries will spend $10.6 billion outsourcing product design, development and testing by 2012, a 2010 report from Industry Canada says. (The federal department doesn’t differentiate between full-service firms, like Spark, that use engineers and industrial designers to invent, prototype, patent, test and even market new products, and companies that focus more purely on industrial or fashion design. Product testing companies are likewise lumped in.)

The market for all this outsourcing is easily one of the most fragmented in the country; the average Canadian design house has just one or two employees. And unlike in the U.S., where major full-service design firms like Ideo and Design Continuum have become household names, Spark, with just 13 employees, is one of the most successful of only a handful of multidisciplinary competitors in Canada. Spark’s client list includes Procter & Gamble, sporting goods companies Cooper, Burton and Adidas, as well as Invotex, a major financial and intellectual property consultancy. You could nearly fit Spark’s entire physical plant into the lobby of Ideo’s California headquarters.

Dickie and company have so far refused to buy into the design world’s latest fashions. Most major design consultancies in other countries now employ reams of social scientists to conduct fieldwork about consumer habits and preferences. Spark still relies largely on common sense and old-fashioned observation. The company employs five industrial designers (Copeland included), four mechanical engineers (Dickie included), one electrical engineer, a CFO, a head of logistics and an office manager, with not a single corduroy-emblazoned anthropologist among them.

Spark also doesn’t do the sort of raucous brainstorming sessions, made famous by Ideo et al., in which staff throw rubber darts at each other and exult in impromptu synapse-restoring one-minute dance parties. And the company has so far steadfastly refused to conduct focus groups for insight into its work. “Those things are useless,” Dickie says. “You get one dominant personality in the group and everybody else says, ‘Let that [double expletive]talk, I just want to get out of here.’ Nobody wants to argue with them. It’s just a focus group and you’ll get your $10. All you have to do is show up.”

Finally, while it’s gospel at Ideo that “there’s no such thing as a lone genius,” Dickie and Copeland might beg to differ. Those two come up with most of the company’s bigger ideas, often quietly, and alone, before dawn, while scrolling through patent office filings, looking for the Spark holy trinity of simple/proprietary/prosaic.

Dickie keeps every one of Spark’s projects distilled down into an irresistible sell line. For GripIt Rite, the golf club grip and aiming aid that Spark developed with Henry Brunton, a Canadian PGA coach, Dickie says, “If you’re shooting right, move the lens two degrees to the right and the ball will go straight. It’s that simple. And it’s legal outside of tournaments.”

For the personal supercooling outfit the company developed for DuPont after 9/11, he says, “First responders-firemen and cops-they go flying into a building and they don’t know whether it’s chemical or nuclear or biological attack, right? So they wear these big rubber suits and oxygen and helmets. If they pass out from all the heat, they die.”

Then there’s the medical device that Spark is working on for Invotex, the U.S. intellectual property firm, with the aim of providing instant results from medical tests that typically have to be shipped to a lab. “You’ve got a big jar of urine and you dip in a stick,” Dickie explains. “Well, how much of the urine did you get on that stick? Maybe 2%? And what if there’s only 10 of the cells you’re looking for and you didn’t get them? This catches and concentrates all those cells on an activated filter and throws the water out.”

One of Dickie’s most memorable sell lines is for a shielded night light, patented in 2003, which safeguards against a particular toddler problem. “A night light is three-dimensional, projecting from the wall, and it lights up, saying, ‘Come to me, I’m your friend.’ The saliva goes in and kids electrocute their face.”

Up on the office’s second floor, Dickie stops at the desk of one of his designers to check in on a project the company is doing for Attodyne Inc., a Toronto-based developer of cold-ablation lasers. Subject to regulatory approval, the devices will some day be used for surgery. “When a laser cuts your skin, it barbecues everything-there’s nothing even human, nothing biological that’s left alive, so there’s nothing left to join,” Dickie says. Attodyne’s cold-ablation laser cuts tissue without barbecuing it.

He turns to the young designer. “On their website, do they still have the bunny?” he asks.

“No, they took it down,” the designer says, sounding disappointed.

“They got this-I thought it was a bunny, but it turns out it was a big white rat. It’s eating lettuce, its nose is wiggling around, and they’re burning a hole in its back with a laser. Doesn’t even feel it! This laser shoots so fast it doesn’t burn the skin.”

For its part, Spark is developing the lasers so they can be used in the manufacture of flat-screen TVs (the lasers are used to kill off dead pixels and activate adjacent ones after individual screens are cut from bigger sheets). Not quite Saw VI: Revenge of the Lab Rat, perhaps, but it’s still high-pressure work. “These things misfire, you kill everyone in the room,” Dickie says. “Let’s face it, it’s lasers flying around, right?”

Spark works on between 70 and 80 projects every year. Nearly 80% of its business is contract work: development, prototyping and intellectual property assistance. Those contracts, which earn the company between $1 million and $2 million in fees per year, cover many of the bills and staffing costs. The company may also take an ownership stake in particularly promising inventions. That sometimes happens with Invotex, which sends most of its projects that require electromechanical engineering to Spark, says Mark Chandler, a managing director at the company’s Philadelphia office. It’s been a productive relationship for both of the firms. “I’ve been doing this for 19 years, and Bob is the best I’ve seen in terms of creativity and pragmatism,” Chandler says. “They don’t usually come together.”

That instant fluid analysis device is a case in point. The initial idea came from a doctor at the Medical University of South Carolina, with which Invotex has a consulting contract. Invotex forwarded it to Spark. “The device now looks nothing like what the doctor conceived of, because the doctor really didn’t know mechanics and design,” Chandler says. “The mechanics of the device is probably 20% the originating inventor and 80% Bob’s ideas.”

All those outside projects also keep Spark awash in new ideas and influences, which it readily uses for its own inventions. “How would a guy in HVAC figure out something we know from heart catheters?” Dickie says, describing a new device that will help office workers regulate ceiling vents. “How many of them will say, ‘That was a neat mechanism, let’s put that here?’ You have no idea how many times we recycle ideas.”

The real money always comes from in-house ideas. In the early 1990s, when Dickie first started thinking about electric toothbrushes, they almost uniformly cost upward of $100, and the technology was so heavily patented that most low-cost manufacturers didn’t bother to compete. What Dickie realized was that all of the existing patents put the motors’ transmissions in the units’ handles. Dickie’s invention kept the motor in the handle but put the transmission into disposable brush heads. “All our technology is in the last inch,” he says. Now the transmissions didn’t have to be built to last: They had to work only as long as the bristles did. The design suddenly made it possible to manufacture a cheap electric toothbrush.

Dickie made sure the innovation wouldn’t infringe on any existing patents. “If you miss one, that will be the one,” he says. “And it will be owned by someone like GM. You’re going to get killed.” The corollary applies too. “If something’s successful and you don’t have a patent, it’ll just get taken away, right about the time you’re ready to recoup your money.” As he always does, Dickie patented every way he could think of that a competitor might try to knock off his toothbrush design.

Dickie, thanks to his experience at Northern Technologies, is an expert at manufacturing. “When you know how to make things, you know how to get other people to make things, and you should never do it yourself. Never.” He had a graphic designer knock off the logo and packaging from Crest, the toothpaste brand owned by Procter & Gamble, and made up a case of toothbrushes. “Usually when we make a presentation to a company, we try to have the product there, with the company’s name on it, fully functional, a whole case of them,” he says. “They have less imagination than you think.”

In 1996, Dickie flew down to Procter & Gamble headquarters and dropped a case of the toothbrushes on the boardroom table. P&G licensed the technology, but later cancelled the contract, following a corporate shake-up. In 1997, Spark licensed its technology to Butler, which makes Gum toothbrushes. A few years later, disappointed with Butler’s sales, Spark cancelled the contract and joined with former Shoppers COO Stan Thomas, marketing consultant Paul Cira and other investors to form a new company, BrushPoint Technologies. BrushPoint began selling the product line to retailers’ private labels-a field that was just then beginning to boom.

BrushPoint remained a virtual company even as it began to steal shelf space from the national brands. It operated largely out of Spark’s offices, with Spark’s CFO and logistics manager running much of the day-to-day, and Spark designers customizing packaging and shelf displays. BrushPoint finally hired its own contract finance and logistics staff late last year.

BrushPoint updates its product line regularly. It has developed an electric toothbrush for denture wearers. “Thirty-three million Americans have dentures and they brush them by hand, like this,” Dickie says, looking as though he’s trying to saw a limb from an ironwood tree. “Now, the first power denture brush. Electric. Rechargeable.” Even that video-gaming toothbrush might actually have a chance, albeit in a slightly different form. (“After a while, we realized that kids weren’t going to be carrying their toothbrushes around with them to play video games.”) And every one of those technologies is backed by the patents to keep them bulletproof.

They have so many more ideas, although they’re naturally coy about the details. There’s something called the Turkey Blanket. There’s a tool for putting leaves into garden waste bags. And we might all soon be seeing commercials for a product line called Transformers. Copeland came up with the idea after buying an exercise machine for his wife a few years ago: The machines are too big and ugly to put where people actually want to use them. Or, as Dickie puts it, “They end up being a clothes hanger in part of your basement.”

Not any longer. Witness U.S. Patent and Trademark Office applications 20080280734 and 20080280735, for “folding treadmill” and “folding elliptical exercise machine”-workout equipment that pops out of a coffee table.

The Wii Workout people had better be worried.

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