Sunday, Oct. 4, 2009 | A yawning garage door breaks the monotony of the white-and-beige, beige-and-white motif of the homes in a subdivision near Mira Mesa.
Inside the open garage, Chris Pyles bustles from workbench to boxes. In one hand, he holds a white plastic contraption. In the other, a similarly shaped plastic piece colored red and black.
Pyles is an inventor, and he is fussing over his new product. He calls it AccuTaper, and it is a masking tape applicator for covering windows and doorframes when painting. It is the spawn of his previous success: the AccuBrush. That product, a paint roller with an attached edge and small paintbrush designed to fill in edges and paint straight trim, sold well on the televised home shopping channel QVC a few years ago.
Now, sorting through his first shipment of AccuTapers, Pyles is testing and piecing together the product to make sure it works. There are three plastic pieces, four rivets, one pair of scissors, a hub for the tape, a spring and a roller. He touts the built-in scissors as a step up from competitors’ serrated single blades, which he said leave painters to splice in another piece of tape when they reach a corner.
Inventors seek three superlatives when defining their product as an improvement over the competition in the marketplace, Pyles said: cheaper, faster, easier to use.
Put aside your first thought of “inventor,” typified by images of a rumpled Alexander Graham Bell or Johannes Gutenberg. Pyles’ is the face of a modern inventor, tinkering in a garage in the middle of a county that is growing a reputation for entrepreneurial spirit. He is nearly 40, an active young dad — on this day clad in a t-shirt, khaki shorts and Birkenstocks — who bounds from thought to thought and who is at one moment pragmatic, at the next dreaming aloud of some offbeat idea.
QVC sold Pyles’ AccuBrush with refills for about $25, Pyles said, and kept about half of the proceeds. The rest trickled down to pay off investors and on-air talent and others. Even after selling about 65,000 units on QVC a few years ago, Pyles and his partners netted about $200,000 — not quite enough to cover all of the time and energy invested at the beginning, he says.
He never found a retail channel to sell the product in the United States. The revenue that comes in still from the AccuBrush’s success in stores in Germany and Australia, however, pays the bills and allows Pyles to keep working on new ideas.
“One thing pays for the next thing,” he said. “It’s a drug habit.”
Since Pyles’ wife has left her job as an accountant to spend more time with their kids, the pressure’s on for his inventions to succeed. As an inventor, he said, some years are good, and some are not. He pulls in an income of around $75,000 per year, he said.
Pyles’ endeavors fit in a wide range of local inventing activity. His “painting apparatus” patent was among 148 patents awarded to individual inventors in San Diego County in 2008, according to U.S. Patent and Trademark Office data. The local patents covered a staggering array of ideas:
- Eyeglasses with wireless audio capability.
- Hat with retractable accessory attachments.
- Use of specific T2R taste receptors to identify compounds that block bitter taste.
- Chess set for the blind.
- Compact elevated pet bath.
- Pole vault pole carrying case.
Few of these novel ideas will translate into any money for their inventors. Inventing is a lonely and painstaking process. Pyles researches the market himself and calls in favors from friends and neighbors to test his products’ iterations. He uses Skype to track design changes with his factory contacts in China, but mostly, he’s left alone with his thoughts and drive.
Pyles flits from idea to idea, from phase to phase, as he pushes his products forward. An oil painter in college, Pyles frankly assessed his talent and concluded he’d never make enough as a fine artist. He leaped into commercial graphic design, went to a year of architecture school, then taught English in Korea for four years.
In college, Pyles had painted houses for work. After getting an MBA back in the United States, he tapped into his memory of the gaping need for a more accurate paint edger. When he couldn’t find one at home improvement stores, he made one.
“You gravitate toward your gifts, right? If I were to describe my job, I’d say I solve problems — that’s what I do,” he said. “I’m a very, very lazy person, I would say, which lends itself very well to inventing.”
His garage is haunted by ghosts of inventions past. In the corner, a couple of adjustable plug-in power paint rollers lean against a wall. A front-wheel drive bicycle has been cannibalized for parts. Other bike-related toys and tricks fit beside a stack of Frisbees and paint rollers. And in boxes, Pyles has pieces for his next big idea: a new type of wind turbine.
From his experience kite-boarding, he knows the power of the wind. Now he must find a durable, cheap, quiet system to produce that energy. He’s finding some materials on eBay, weighing wood versus aluminum.
His mind never turns off. A couple of weeks ago, Pyles visited Balboa Park with his twins, who are nearly 3 years old. They kept wanting to be picked up and then let down, picked up and let down. As Pyles strained his arms to lift his 33-pound children up and down, a light bulb went on. He needed to be able to pick his kids up quickly, put them down just as fast, and have a tool that wasn’t too hot to wear and didn’t look stupid, he said.
He came home and assembled a “one-armed baby-holding assist” from a luggage strap, a rope, and a toy top with a hole drilled through it to serve as a handle.
This isn’t far from the way Pyles designed his previous products. He doesn’t draw anything out, just molds together pieces to come up with a raw prototype. For the AccuTaper, the prototype comprises several pieces of white plastic, filled in with what looks like wadded up Kleenex.
And that’s what it is. Pyles mashes up some toilet paper, pours super glue on the wad, then waits a few seconds. The tissue begins to smoke. With his bare fingers, he shapes the paper in the way he wants it to look, and within a few more seconds, the mass has hardened completely.
Once Pyles gets a prototype working, he tests it and recreates it a few hundred times before sending it to China, where his manufacturers make a preliminary version on the computer.
Pyles said he spends hours every day watching YouTubes of amateur inventors’ ideas and poring over the U.S. Patent Office databases. Just because you don’t see something in a store, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist somewhere, he said.
This is not a job for the impatient. He’s been working on this model for close to four years. He filed a patent about a year-and-a-half ago, but expects its approval may take another two or three years. The wait for patents has grown longer and more drawn out than it ever has been.
“The initial ‘aha’ moment takes a day,” he said. “To get it from my idea to this takes years.”
For this product, he’s hoping a big company like 3M will purchase the AccuTaper in bulk and market it under the brand. He got lucky with the AccuBrush, winning a home renovation product of the year challenge on QVC and securing a few dozen televised spots to sell the product over the airwaves.
Pyles’ supposed time-saving ideas have cost him years more time than it would’ve taken to tape or paint houses the old way, without his products. But he’s banking on other people spotting the same need for a product and buying his.
“I could’ve taped 500 homes by now,” he said, laughing at the paradox. “I’m trading mundane work for interesting work.”
And for freedom. Pyles and his wife, both Korean, hope to move for a few years so their kids can meet more family members. When they do, Pyles will just move his whole operation to Korea, he says.
At parties, Pyles doesn’t usually tell people he’s an inventor, describing his work instead as whatever phase he’s on at the moment — market research or product development. “It just gets too complicated,” he said.
Is that to avoid a mad scientist stereotype?
“No, I think that’s actually appropriate,” he said. “You have to be a little bit mad. Hopefully it’s tempered by somewhat of a business sense. … I think ultimately the idea of inventing is you want to make a living — but if I were independently wealthy, I would be absolutely crazy.”