After winning an invention competition last July, 21-year-old Long Island native Eric Nguyen is now on an unexpected journey to bring his product to market.
"I always liked being hands-on as a kid," said Nguyen, who is working with product development startup Quirky to produce his water-saving toilet-conversion kit.
While a commercial success would be nice, the Cooper Union electrical engineering junior and Centereach High School's 2012 valedictorian said one of the "coolest things" about the process was simply getting an idea out of his head and into the world.
Last summer, Nguyen and partner Abiyaz Chowdhury, 21, a Cooper Union junior who lives in Manhattan, developed what the pair calls a dual-flush retrofit kit. It allows consumers to convert standard single-flush toilets to water-saving dual-flush designs, with the option to use less water per flush for liquid waste, or more for solid.
"I wanted to help cut the amount of water the average American household consumes by tackling the toilet problem," Nguyen said. According to his calculations, his product could save homes as much as 3,500 gallons of water a year -- that's about 12 years' worth of drinking water for one person.
The Invention Factory
The product was one of nine to come out of The Cooper Union's Invention Factory, a six-week summer program and invention competition at the Manhattan school. Started by physics and mechanical engineering professors Alan Wolf and Eric Lima two years ago, Invention Factory gives engineering students a place to develop their skills in a short amount of time.
"We wanted them working with their hands, working with tools," said Wolf. The program doesn't allow students to submit digital applications or computer programs as inventions.
By the end of the first week, each student team must have plans for an original invention. Teams then spend weeks developing and improving prototypes, leading up to a final presentation and a shot at cash prizes.
Before the second week had started, Nguyen had a working prototype built.
"I couldn't stop him," said Chowdhury of his partner's devotion. "By the end of the first week, what he had was probably around the same level as what everyone else had by the end of the program."
The kit includes a container with a valve at the bottom, to be placed in the toilet tank. A switch connected to the valve opens or closes the container, so that when users flush, they can either use all the water or leave a portion in the container.
While Nguyen and Chowdhury were happy with the results of their eventual win -- a $5,000 check for first place -- the duo, along with the entire Invention Factory group, was invited to present their products to Quirky last month.
Quirky used as springboard
Founded in 2009, Quirky is an online platform that helps inventors get products off the drawing board and into the consumer market. Handling everything from design to marketing to distribution, the company has brought more than 400 ideas to the marketplace.
Every Thursday, hopeful inventors selected in advance by Quirky's online community pitch their product ideas to a live audience at the startup's Chelsea headquarters, where inventions are chosen to join the company's product pipeline.
After pitching on Feb. 19, Nguyen and three other teams from Cooper were offered a spot.
"I am excited to hopefully make it past the manufacturing stage, because not that many inventions even get past the prototyping stage into marketing," Nguyen said. Only one in five products chosen by Quirky makes it to the marketplace.
Staffers may find "that an idea is technologically infeasible, that there's a lack of retail interest, or that there's a prohibitive cost to build," Sarah Bain, Quirky's educational outreach manager, said in an email.
Quirky pays inventors a set percentage on sales of their product. They can receive a higher percentage based on their continued contribution, or "influence," on their invention's evolution, Bain said.
The company has had some inventors who have seen great commercial success, such as Pivot Power inventor Jake Zien, whose flexible power strip has sold more than 2 million units, netting him close to $1 million, according to Quirky. But Nguyen said he'll be satisfied with whatever happens.
"The opportunities that this program has offered me were immense," he said. "Right now, anything will make me happy."