After graduating from St. John’s University in 1965 with a degree in mathematics and in 1966 with a master’s in math, Tony Pagoto got a job at Grumman in Bethpage working on the Apollo 11 moon landing. Being part of the team that designed the lunar-module software is still work he recalls as a highlight of his career.
He left aerospace for finance, working for Citibank and Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, then he worked for nearly two decades at TIAA-CREF, retiring in 2001.
Since then, Pagoto has been charting a path as an inventor: Things others see as inconvenience, he says, fuel inventions for him. After being dissatisfied with the veritable hornet’s nest of wires he saw when installing a TV for his daughter, he invented the WireMate about a year after retiring.
“In running all the wires, I tried to be neat and organized. In the end, it looked like a bowl of spaghetti,” he says. “I thought: There has to be a better way. I sat down, drew some pictures, came up with a design, got a patent, started manufacturing it.”
Pagoto, 75, who lives in Cutchogue, says he has sold about 100,000 WireMate wire organizers online through his own site and other vendors.
In 2015, he ran into problems installing grommets, plastic sheathes that cover holes to run wires. “If the hole isn’t the perfect size, there’s no locking mechanism,” he said. “They [the wires] always fall out.”
Enter another of his inventions: Twist Lock Grommet, a product Pagoto speaks of with the affection usually reserved for loved ones. His company JBL Products, which makes the grommet, is a tribute to daughters, Jennifer, Beth and Lauren.
After about 100 prototypes, four years and countless late nights tinkering in his garage, Pagoto plans to launch the product in April.
“It self-secures and locks. It’s the only grommet on the market that will do that without tools,” Pagoto said. “This is a game changer. It’s so easy to install.”
Aging into inventor-mode
While entrepreneurs start businesses, inventors on Long Island are a slightly different breed. Where others see problems, they see products. And many retired people, like Pagoto — convinced their idea can change the world (if only a little) — might devote countless hours and cash to making their ideas a reality. He has been a member of the Long Island Inventors and Entrepreneurs Club for about a decade, showing his products, getting feedback — and some orders.
“They’re from all industries,” Brian Fried, president of the Long Island Inventors and Entrepreneurs Club and executive director of the United Inventors Association of America, a nonprofit with more than 15,000 members, says of the club's membership. “I think people are inventing because they’re looking either for residual income or to be the next millionaire inventor. They have a dream and vision of having their product be used by other people.”
Fried says retirees can be ideally situated as inventors because they may have savings or an income stream coupled with time to think and tinker.
“They’re settled down. Sometimes they can focus on things they wanted to accomplish earlier, when their life was more hectic,” Fried says. “Inventors tell me about an idea they’ve been sitting on for a while.”
At a recent Long Island club meeting, with more than 100 people, about a dozen inventors showed nearly 20 products as presenters do on the TV show “Shark Tank” — but with no guarantee of investors in the room.
“This has been going on well before ‘Shark Tank,’ ” Fried says of the club, which meets at the Small Business Development Center at Farmingdale State College.
About 90 percent of inventions are practical, everyday ideas, while 10 percent are tech products, he says. The Island, he adds, has an infrastructure for inventors.
“We have patent attorneys, manufacturing, graphic designers and prototypers,” Fried says. “We have our own ecosystem here to take an idea and make it a reality.”
Ken Sobel, 67, of Farmingdale, who presented his product at a recent club meeting, worked as a lamp designer before retiring and founding Romboxt, which makes tissue boxes in which the tissue itself is part of a design.
“The tissue becomes the dress of a ballerina or the exhaust of a rocket or the cloud under Snoopy as the flying ace,” Sobel says. “I consider what I do to be functional sculpture. To me, this is art and engineering.”
Capturing Eureka! moments
Inventors often talk of an “ah ha” or “eureka!” moment when, suddenly, the solution to a problem becomes clear. After about 100 tests, Pagoto’s grommet moment came at about 2 a.m., when he saw a butterfly bolt.
“I had that bolt on my workbench. My eye caught it,” he said. “Instantly I got the idea for the design.”
Sobel’s “ah ha” moment arrived when he saw a tissue box shaped like a house with tissues pouring out of the chimney like smoke.
“It got my mind going,” Sobel said. “If the tissue is the smoke coming out of a chimney, what else could the tissue be? I started putting tissue boxes around my home to look at them.”
Howie Busch, 54, a Roslyn resident who competed on “Shark Tank” in 2018, happened upon what would become his signature product, the Dude Robe, when he saw his wife wearing a bathrobe. “I never wore a bathrobe,” he recalls thinking, “I’m not going to buy a bathrobe."
Seeing a hoodie hanging nearby, Busch says he thought of designing a bathrobe that looked more like that. Busch says he bought six towels at Walmart and asked a tailor to make them into a robe that looked like a hoodie and sweatpants.
“It’s a cooler, updated version of the bathrobe that hasn’t changed in more than 200 years,” says Busch, a member of the LI club.
Taking a product from idea to prototype is half the battle. Inventors also talk about the challenges of bringing a product to market. Here the club often lends support because marketing, promotional, branding experts, graphic artists and publicists often attend meetings.
“Every aspect of the inventing process, there are people there who can help you,” Pagoto said. “I met people at the meetings who helped me with various parts of the inventing process, like getting the patent and making the prototype.”
To raise money and bring the Dude Robe to market, Busch launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2017, hit his funding goal of $25,000 in two days and in less than a week got a Tweet from “Shark Tank” suggesting they talk.
“They reached out to me. It’s not how most people get on,” Busch said. “I would not have tried to get on ‘Shark Tank,’ but if they were going to ask me to go?”
His appearance didn’t result in funding, but benefitted his business in other ways.
“People love it, want to talk about it,” Busch said. “Everyone will take a meeting.”
Social media support, too
Busch says “Shark Tank” entrepreneurs also help one another on a private Facebook page. “That group is like our own mastermind,” Busch says.
Yet, the manufacturing process can prove a breaking point for many new inventors.
Pagoto makes his products at Sterling Molded Products, an injection and dye molding company owned by relatives in upstate Middletown. “It’s convenient,” he says of the firm.
Busch, on the other hand, began by having the Dude Robe made in China, then shifted to Pakistan. Sobel got his product to market three years ago with a first run out of China, where it was made of medium-density fiber board.
“It looked great,” Sobel says. “But I didn’t like some quality issues.” He switched to plastic and metal, and now makes his products in the United States.
“It’s been an up-and-down market for me,” Sobel says, noting some products connect with consumers more quickly. “The ballerina was the fastest.”
Some inventors take a different route, licensing their idea and earning royalties — but letting someone else handle manufacturing, sales, marketing and fulfillment.
Fried collects royalties from adjustable food tongs sold under the Farberware brand, snack containers with Elmo, the Cookie Monster and Ninja Turtles designs, and Pull Ties to close plastic bags with food, which he says have been sold at places ranging from QVC to Walmart.
“The risk [in manufacturing your own product] is greater, but the reward can be greater,” he says.
The internet itself can be the inventor’s best friend, many say. The Dude Robe is sold at Duderobe.com, Amazon and such e-tailers as Touch of Modern.
Likewise, Sobel sells on Romboxt.com, Amazon and Etsy. For the ballerina box he’s also found a niche in 16 Capezio dancewear stores nationwide. “I’m trying to make deals with ballet stores around the country,” he says.
In addition to the monetary rewards of inventing, inventors talk about the satisfaction of seeing their products embraced by customers.
“People tell me how wonderful this product is,” Sobel says. “I get comments directly from my customers, from people who like it. That’s something that modern marketing gives you.”
The Long Island Inventors and Entrepreneurs Club
WHEN I WHERE Meets monthly at the Small Business Development Conference Center, 2350 Broadhollow Rd., Farmingdale College. The next meeting is 7 to 9 p.m. April 10.
INFO 631-565-7074; liinventorsclub.com