Inventor: Joel Townsen
Product: Flipout Screwdrivers
Where to get them: Lowe’s and www.lowes.com
Description: A versatile, rechargeable multi-tool that fits into tight spaces with a rotating head with more than 350
What problem were you trying to fix and how did you come up with the solution?
“I came up with the idea back in 2003 while trying to replace a speaker in the door of my car. The drill I was using
wouldn’t fit inside the door panel and the idea hit me: why not invent an electric screwdriver that transforms into
different shapes? Power tool companies had been making the same type of products for years – large bulky drills that
were difficult to use in confined spaces and offered no versatility whatsoever. I thought if I could incorporate the
flexibility of a robotic arm into an electric screwdriver I would be on to something. The first prototype was built using
pieces of acrylic for the housing and plastic gears I got out of a robotics mail-order catalog. It wasn’t anything fancy, but
it worked and gave me a sense of excitement that drove me to push forward and keep trying harder. “
What did it take in terms of time and effort to go from idea to getting it to market?
“It took me nearly ten years to get this product to market and a tremendous amount of effort. I ended up dropping out
of school in order to work full time, usually 60 plus hours a week to fund my dream. Any spare time I had was often
spent working on the latest prototype. The product was fairly involved and had numerous parts. I spent years perfecting
it until it actually worked. On top of this, everything was super expensive – patents, prototype parts, CNC machining,
injection molding, trade shows, marketing materials – you name it! It all cost money.”
Your path to market was a little different than most since you licensed it – can you explain a little bit about how the process worked for you?
“Licensing is basically where another company makes and sells your product, in return you get a percentage of the net
profits. It’s a good route for inventors who have a great product idea but aren’t sure how to go about manufacturing it
themselves or how to deal with retailers. For me, landing a licensing deal was extremely difficult. I took part in trade
shows and contests, applied to present my product on Shark Tank, and pitched every company under the sun trying to
secure a licensing deal. The turning point for me was after I launched the product through crowdfunding -after the
campaign ended, I received several emails from big name power tool companies who were interested. In the end, I
hooked up with a manufacturing company out of Seattle and together we pitched Lowe’s for a DRTV deal. Before I knew
it, Flipout had its own TV commercial and we sold hundreds of thousands of units in a matter of months. “
What was the biggest challenge you faced and/or the one piece of advice you would give to other aspiring inventors?
“The biggest challenge I faced was overcoming the enormous costs involved with prototyping. When I started this
project, affordable desktop 3D printers were not readily available. Since I was designing a hand-held power tool, I went
through a lot of different variations to make it work properly and fit comfortably in the hand. Nowadays, I just print the
parts on my 3D printer and it costs me $1-2 per part, as opposed to $50-100 per part.”
“My advice to any aspiring inventor is to take that first step and build a prototype, even if it’s made out of cardboard…
the point is we all have to start somewhere. Anything that will help you get a sense for how a product looks, feels, and
*This piece originally appeared in the Bellingham Herald.