A lifelong interest in boats and motors led a Long Island mortgage loan officer on a four-year, $40,000 quest to develop and market a new way to winterize marine engines.
Last month came a major victory: One of the nation's biggest marine supply houses began selling the product, called Winterize It Pro.
For the inventor, 46-year-old John Drakos of Huntington, it was a case not of breaking into a crowded market, but of trying to pique interest in a product that didn't exist before -- at least not in a spray can.
Drakos, a Huntington native and boat owner who works for the Corridor Mortgage Group of Hauppauge, claims the product transforms the often messy job of flushing and winterizing the water cooling systems of outboard or personal watercraft engines. More conventional ways involve running through the system gallons of antifreeze and other chemicals, most of which end up on the owner's driveway. Another way is to simply flush the system with a garden hose, but Drakos says that method neither removes all the salt nor coats the engine components with a corrosion inhibitor.
Drakos' way appears -- at least in his promotional YouTube video -- to be simpler and less messy, since it involves only 10.7 ounces of chemicals.
The boat owner simply connects the aerosol can to the cooling system and presses a button on the can to release a solution of rust inhibitors and nontoxic antifreeze to circulate within it, coat its parts and then drip slowly out into a pan.
Drakos said he got the idea in taking care of his own boat, a Grady-White with twin outboard engines. "I was surprised at the corrosion that was occurring on the inside of the engine," he said. "I thought, 'What can I do to stop it?' "
He developed a formula of tried and true marine-grade chemicals, then the special aerosol can to inject them into the engine. He got a chemical company in Wisconsin to produce 1,000 cans of Winterize It Pro as a market test, funding production with his own savings.
Marketing a new invention presents special challenges but also opportunities, said business adviser Walter Reid, who specializes in new inventions at Farmingdale State College's Small Business Development Center. Even before selling it, the inventor has to make sure the idea really is new. To win over retailers, he said, the inventor has to convince them the products on shelves now are in danger of being "obsoleted" by the new invention, and that stocking the new product will boost their sales.
Despite the challenges, Drakos said, he sold the first batch of 1,000 cans in three months online.
Next he approached West Marine, a California-based retailer that, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, had 279 stores at the end of last year in 38 states, Puerto Rico and Canada plus two e-commerce websites. Four stores are on Long Island.
Long wait for big bite
It took me months to get them to call me back," Drakos said. "But once they understood what the product was, it was like 40 minutes before they decided to put it on their shelves."
Winterize It Pro went on sale in September in cold weather regions, under an agreement with West Marine that bars Drakos from selling it to Walmart, Amazon, Defender and on eBay but permits him to market it to smaller retailers.
The timing was perfect. This is when boat owners in cold climates are winterizing.
At West Marine's headquarters, Dave Ungerecht, who worked with Drakos as a buyer specializing in engine-related products, said, "For the majority of our customers who have outboards, I think it's an elegant solution."
West Marine doesn't service engines, but one man who does is Conrad Kreuter, one of nine maritime technology instructors at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn and owner of Moriches Boat & Motor in East Moriches. He said he never heard of Winterize It Pro but that flushing salt deposits from an outboard's cooling system is vital. "Anything that could live up to its claim that it gets the salt out and protects the cooling system might be something that people would use," he said.
West Marine won't disclose unit sales so far, but Ungerecht said, "It's meeting expectations. It's going to take a year or so to catch on, but we're pleased with what we're seeing out of the gate."