Talk to Zach Kaplan for any length of time and you're bound to hear him speak his mantra: ``Step, stretch, leap.''
The ambitious, 24-year-old entrepreneur and his 23-year-old college buddy and business partner, Keith Schacht, offer a design innovation service that counts among its clients General Motors Corp., IBM Corp. Coca-Cola Co. Tupperware Corp., Herman Miller Inc., Black & Decker Corp. and the U.S. Army. Their mission: to bring inspiring ideas to the designers and engineers in such organizations, ``to empower them, to let them take the next step, stretch a little, and then imagine the leap.''
Kaplan and Schacht call their tiny, Chicago-based company Inventables LLC. They offer a service called DesignAid, which consists of a three-part, quarterly subscription - comprising physical materials samples, a printed design guide and an online database. Essentially, the two scour scores of resources each month to discover promising new materials, innovative processes and novel technologies relevant to product designers.
They boil the list down to their top 20 such items each quarter, collect and neatly tag physical samples of each and provide supporting documentation, both in print and online, that includes technical data, applications information, pricing, Internet resources and vendor contact details. All samples are packaged in handy, bookshelf-size containers with hinged, clear plastic fronts and labeled spines.
Consider it a tangible library of cool ideas.
Inventables itself was a cool idea to its founders. The two met at an entrepreneurial business-planning competition at the University of Illinois in Champaign when Kaplan was a senior and Schacht a junior. In December 2000 they began hatching plans together to launch a software company.
The day after Kaplan graduated the following May, they moved the furniture out of his small apartment, turned it into an office and founded Lever Works Inc., a developer of custom Internet software applications. The business grew and created an inventory-change-notice system for its biggest client, truck bumper manufacturer Flex-N-Gate.
``We learned a ton the first year,'' Kaplan said in a June 5 telephone interview. ``But we were spending so much time working that we wanted to do something we were passionate about. We wanted to merge our personal and professional goals.''
So in January 2002, they sold Lever Works for an undisclosed sum to e-learning firm Leo Media Inc., and weeks later officially launched their current company.
``Even before we started Inventables, our office was Inventables,'' he said, noting the pair's penchant for collecting nifty stuff. ``Ingenuity, prototyping, brainstorming, creativity - we wanted to make this part of our daily lives.''
And so they have. They attend conferences and trade shows, read trade magazines, research online sites and databases, and network constantly to uncover novel materials and processes. Then they hawk their findings to interested parties.
``We focus on companies concerned with differentiation and adding value to their products,'' Kaplan said. One such customer is Erika Gomez, Atlanta-based design manager in Coca-Cola's worldwide licensing department. She said of Inventables, ``They're doing a great job. The materials are really useful.''
For the types of firms that currently count as clients, price is not a major issue. Inventables charges $1,000-$8,000 a year for a one-year subscription (depending on the number of physical samples, printed design guides and online user licenses per package), and it offers a single issue, DesignAid Basic, for $249 to those who want to try it first. It produced its third quarterly package in May and, while Kaplan won't discuss sales, he said growing business is prompting expansion.
Inventables last month hired a full-time engineer to run operations, is looking to hire a full-time computer programmer and recently outsourced production of its quarterly kits. Meantime, Kaplan does as many speaking engagements before the design community as he can. He and Schacht, for example, are on the program at the design trends conference June 26 at NPE 2003 in Chicago.
Kaplan and Schacht group their findings into five categories - materials, mechanisms, manufacturing processes, electronics and ``wow'' products. An example of a mechanism that made the grade is a German firm's dual-chamber, plastic suntan-lotion bottle with a cartridge and dial that allow users to mix their own sun protection factor. Examples of other featured items include:
* A new, metal-bonding grade of Santoprene thermoplastic elastomer from Advanced Elastomer Systems LP.
* A low-temperature polycaprolactone material that can be heated in a microwave oven and then hand-molded to create such things as prototypes or splints.
* Tiny, irregularly shaped plastic particles that can be mixed into a compound prior to molding, allowing for ``microtags,'' or a type of bar coding, to be embedded in the resulting product.
* 3M Co.'s Radiant Light Film, which is a multilayer, polymeric film that can be applied in the mold and offers eye-catching visual and reflective properties.
For Kaplan, a mechanical engineer who built a working model roller coaster to scale in his house while in high school, Inventables represents the perfect marriage of passion and profession.
``It's a continual iteration and evolution,'' he said. ``It's difficult for corporate design teams to find the next great thing,'' so Inventables wants to help. ``It's easier, though, if a corporation values innovation. That makes it an easier sell.'' Easier to help them step, stretch and leap.