By Monica Mendoza
Inside Mind Studios at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, a small team of engineers is working behind closed doors on inventions that could change your life.
Like any inventors hammering away at the next big thing, they keep the details of their creations under wraps until a project is unveiled as a fully functioning prototype — with a patent in place — and ready for mass production. It makes Mind Studios one of the most intriguing businesses in Colorado Springs.
But this isn’t your typical garage-style tinkering. This is invention with a mission. The studio — consisting of three staffers and a student intern — is part of a larger effort by the El Pomar Institute for Innovation and Commercialization at UCCS and has a mandate to stimulate Colorado Springs economic development by putting new products on the shelves.
Mind Studios’ customers are any business with a product idea, any company that wants to refine an existing product, and any Joe or Jane inventor with a dream of changing the world.
“These are people who have a great idea and are really not sure what they need to do to make it a reality — to make it a successful product in the marketplace,” said Michael Larson, the director of Mind Studios and a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UCCS.
At the moment, Mind Studios is at work on 29 different projects — ideas brought in by individual inventors and small businesses that range from a wind turbine project that could cost $1 million to prototype to a $5 novelty gift one might purchase from a street vendor on a sunny day.
Already, four products that it has worked on are on the market.
Among them, Mind Studios has redesigned and engineered a retractable dog leash, on shelves now as the “Evolution” in PetCo and PetSmart. The team has also redesigned a rubber door grip, made especially for folks who have trouble with round door knobs. More than 1 million Great Grips have been sold.
“Some of the testimonials have been incredible,” said Patrick Going, owner of Great Grips in Colorado Springs. Going took his general concept of a door grip to Mind Studios last year for refining after he read an article about Larson’s studio. For less than $1,000, the engineers took four months to refine the product, which was recently named the 2010 Caregiver Friendly Award from Caregiver magazine. More than 1 million Great Grips have been sold.
“People have said, ‘You’ve changed my life,’ Going said. “Can you believe that? A $2 item that changes a person’s life.”
Larson, who also holds a position as associate vice chancellor for research and innovation at UCCS, move from New Orleans to Colorado Springs with a proven record in the business of innovation.
He is the co-founder of two companies — one based on a medical device he invented, a stapler that dispenses bio-absorbable staples — and the other called Innovation Toys showcasing his board game Khet, which has had sales of more than 140,000.
Each month, about 20 would-be inventors come in to Mind Studios with their ideas, some sketched on a scrap of paper, some cobbled together out of parts from the garage.
The team talks about patents, intellectual property issues, and how to get the idea into consumers’ hands.
Inside Mind Studios, which is no larger than a typical college classroom, a creative vibe is everywhere — on the large table where board games are spread out, on a big screen where computer designs and animations show off complex mechanical designs.
The room also contains stuff you’d see in a machine shop — a lathe, a milling machine and band saw.
In the back sits a “rapid prototyping” machine, a 3D printer capable of producing actual parts up to 9 inches by 9 inches by 12 inches in size.
“It’s by far the coolest job ever,” said David Hills, a UCCS junior studying mechanical engineering who works at the lab.
After four years in business, Mind Studios is finding its place as one of the leading industrial design firms in the Pike Peak region, though it’s still very much a small business. Last year, Mind Studios had revenues of $65,000, Larson said. The company is still doing some pro bono work and free seminars to get out its name, he said. This year, the studio is on track to generate $100,000 in sales.
Mind Studios’ fees are $25 an hour for student work and $90 an hour for professional designers.
There’s plenty to keep everyone busy, said Luke Hooper, Mind Studios’ executive designer.
Hooper at the moment is finishing up a custom cord drop tester for C.A. Technologies. The machine will test the cords, some with as many as 20 connections, that run the company’s medical devices. No surgeon wants to find themselves in mid-surgery holding a device with a faulty connection.
“Our motto is we really can pull off any project,” Hooper said. “You name it, we’ll do it. Or at least we will tell you we can and then we’ll figure it out.”