I’ve known a few frustrated inventors over the years—the types of people that always seem to have the next big idea in mind but just don’t know how to bring it to market. A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon the perfect place for today’s Junior Edisons and Franklins. Called the Sparks Product Innovation Center, it’s an idea incubator for electricians started by a company called Madison Electric Products.
Now Madison is turning its attention to the low-voltage and datacomm markets, where creative custom integrators and VARS may try their luck at selling their own inventive product concepts, perhaps moving them out the garage and into the big time.
Rob Fisher has been VP of marketing at Madison for about six years. Back when he and Madison’s executive team were looking to update their brands, they turned to their customers (professional electricians) to generate solutions for challenges that they were facing in the field.
“On jobsites guys are always rigging something together, to get something done with something that doesn’t exist in the market,” he said. “So we created the Sparks Innovation Center to crowd source product development. It was the first time in our industry that anyone had actively done that.”
As a result, Madison is now considered an innovative company again, rather than an 83-year-old dinosaur.
“What we do is try to channel [the inventors] in a certain direction,” Fisher added. “If we can’t do something with it, we’ll try to point them in the right direction and help them get their products to market.”
Madison can take ideas in just about any form, whether it’s written on a napkin or from someone who has a prototype already built. One of the company’s best stories involved Long Islander Greg Herth, an electrician for more than 30 years who built the “Smart Box,” after he found a need for driving two screws a nonmetallic box. They’re sturdier and more versatile than other products, but he and his wife had a hard time growing their company. At first, Madison partnered with them as the primary distributor for their products and then four and half years later they bought his company.
Another inventor, Jeff Locher, had an idea for a product that he could pop into a drop-ceiling grid to pull Cat-6 and MC cable through without damaging it or the ceiling. He brought a drawing to Madison, and one of its engineers made the “Stingray” functional.
“We have marketing. We have the sales channel. We have the distribution channel. We have the manufacturing capability. The thing we need are the great ideas,” Fisher said. “If they want a royalty, that’s fine. If they want us to buy their patent, that’s fine. If they want us to help them patent it, that’s fine too. Whatever works for both parties, depending on the product and the cost, we’ll work out a mutually beneficial deal.”
Now Madison is heading to CEDIA EXPO and the datacomm channel’s BICSI show to open up its idea incubator to a broader channel. Maybe you’re the next Thomas Edison or Jeff Locher.