There is more good news for hardware enthusiasts with great ideas.
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Cool Idea, a competition of ideas for hardware entrepreneurs, has opened its doors yet again. Started by Proto Labs, a New York City-based maker of injection-molded parts, in 2011, the Cool Idea award offers more than $250,000 worth of services from Proto Labs to help convert the entrepreneur’s idea into reality. In addition, Dragon Innovation, a Boston-based manufacturing services firm that is fast emerging as a hub for the hardware entrepreneurship movement, has also contributed $20,000 worth of services for their crowdfunding platform. Incidentally, the award amount has grown exponentially since 2011, when approximately $100,000 worth of services from Proto Labs was awarded to the first set of winners. The event has also expanded to include entries from Europe for its competition.
Recently, ProtoLabs organized a gallery event in New York City to showcase previous winners of the award. According to Sarah Braun, spokesperson for the event, the intent behind the event was to provide additional insight into the roles behind the people who conceptualized the product. In addition, they also have a cool virtual gallery of prize winners from the past few years. But, Braun clarifies that “Nothing can replace the experience of seeing completed products in real life.”
Previous award winners in the program comprise a diverse range of products targeted at different industries. They include remote garage monitoring systems, wheelchairs designed to handle rough terrain, and low-cost prosthetic knees. I asked Sarah Braun whether the judging team used specific criteria to identify winners. For example, ideas with an element of social good (such as the wheelchair and intelligent walking sticks) seem to have done well at the awards. “We don’t specifically seek them out,” says Braun, referring to the products I mentioned earlier. Instead, she says that judges take a variety of factors into consideration, such as the product’s utility for end users and its development process. The latter factor is important because it determines the extent and scope of Proto Labs involvement in the production process. But, the most important criteria, however, is to determine whether the product will be widely beneficial to people, she says.
Although marketing of winner’s products receives an initial boost after the win, Braun clarifies that award winners do not receive special marketing insight from Proto Labs. But, they receive help from Proto Labs in their area of expertise, namely product development.
Soloshot, a robotic camera company and previous winner at Proto labs, used Proto Labs’ services to make the first 500 plastic parts of their product. When they won the Cool Idea award, Soloshot had completed a reasonably successful Kickstarter campaign, launched a website to collect preorders, and iterated several 3D printed prototypes of their product.
According to Chris Boyle, founder at the company, the award helped reduce lead times and enabled Proto Labs to get their product out in the market. “As soon as we had the preorders, we could turn the ignition at Proto labs (to manufacture the product),” says Boyle. He estimates that winning the award shaved three to six months off lead times for their final product. “The Cool Idea award helped us bridge the gap between idea generation and product volumes,” he says.