Muskegon inventor named to national association board

March 30, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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Orville Crain, a successful inventor and founder of the Muskegon Inventors Network, has been named secretary of the United Inventors Association, a national nonprofit organization that represents about 10,000 inventors.

Crain, who lives in Muskegon and is president of MIN, is listed as an inventor on four patents and has a fifth patent pending.

The United Inventors Association was formed in St. Louis, Mo., in 1990 following a conference of independent inventors sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. Acting as a national clearinghouse for inventor resources, UIA has referred thousands of independent inventors to local inventor groups for advice and support.

Crain said he learned recently that in December he had been voted onto the board of the UIA as secretary. Crain said he had previously met the executive director at inventors' events around the country and that the UIA was quite familiar with MIN.

"To be recognized like that is quite an honor," said Crain — and, he added, it entails "quite a lot of work" with the UIA board.

The UIA serves as a parent organization for independent inventors’ organizations, and seeks board members who have had a successful invention and have started a local inventors’ group. Crain meets both of those qualifications.

Crain is one of the inventors of a patented box cutter called Klever Kutter, which was introduced in 2005 and is now approaching sales of two million. Crain, who has worked as a marketing specialist, developed Klever Kutter with Jeff Kempker, who had the original idea for it, and Matt Jacobs, owner of Advanced Molding Solutions in Grand Haven, where the product is made.

Today, Crain and Jacobs are partners in Klever Innovations, which makes the Klever Kutter, a small, disposable hand tool with a recessed blade that prevents contact with the cutting edge. The cutting area is also shielded, which reduces the risk of damaging merchandise inside boxes being opened. Inspiration for the tool came after the September 11, 2001, attacks, in which the plane hijackers used conventional box cutters as weapons.

As for sales of Klever Kutter, Crain said January "was the third best month in the history of our company. February was the best month we've ever had — and March is already ahead of February, so March is obviously going to be the best month we've ever had."

The Klever Kutter is sold in volume to industrial and safety supply companies, which re-sell the product to end users. Many end up at retail stores where employees frequently open corrugated boxes, and at manufacturing companies that receive large volumes of shrink wrapped materials that need to be cut open.

Crain said the recent growth of Klever Kutter sales probably has to do with a shift in marketing focus to match the economic downturn. The original marketing emphasis was on the safety of the cutter and the fact that a user could not inadvertently slit contents inside a shipping container being opened. That pitch "did very well," said Crain. Over the last three months, however, the Klever Kutter partners realized that its low cost was an advantage.

"Everyone's cutting their budget, by 20 percent or 30 percent," said Crain. "My cutters cost less than two dollars. Many times a company is spending four, five, six, even up to 20 dollars for a box cutter."

"We pushed the focus onto low cost, and it has helped us tremendously," he said.

Most of the marketing is done by Crain at trade shows. Last year Klever Kutter was exhibited at four large shows.

"We don’t do any national advertising. We feel like it's too expensive," he said.

In January, Klever Innovations was an exhibitor at a private trade show in Florida just for the 2,500 sales reps for Grainger Industrial Supply, one of the largest industrial supply houses in the world.

"We're just having phenomenal sales with them, right off the bat. That's another reason why our sales are up," said Crain.

Klever Kutter was also exhibited at the National Safety Congress show in Las Vegas, and at another safety products show in Chicago at McCormick Place.

A new user of Klever Kutter is Food Lion, a chain of 1,500 supermarkets throughout the South.

"When you get one of the big guys, it becomes a lot easier" and provides leverage for capturing other large customers, he said.

Klever Innovations now has a second product called Klever Koncept, a cutting tool with an ergonomically designed handle.

A distributor of the Klever Kutter in West Michigan is IMC Products Inc. of Muskegon, which is headed by Irmgard M. Cooper. She also serves as secretary of the Muskegon Inventors Network and is one of its original members.

Cooper noted that MIN just turned three years old in mid-March. The organization now has about 55 members; it is normal for 40 or more to be at each meeting. The group meets regularly at the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce, which provides meeting space at no cost. Another MIN sponsor is Huntington Bank.

First-time inventors generally find themselves in a bewildering thicket. Sometimes an expectation of great wealth coming their way will make them easy prey to individuals who glibly promise "professional help" in developing their invention — for a fee. A few of the so-called helpers are actual scammers who drain as much cash from their victims as they can.

MIN meetings focus on things such as free resources available to inventors, who to turn to for help, and the types of situations to avoid. Of constant interest to the neophytes are the myriad legal issues, ranging from patents to registered trademarks, with frequent presentations to MIN by attorneys with experience in the invention process.

Cooper's advice to would-be inventors is: "Come to one of our meetings. Every meeting is informative."

She said MIN has "a number of would-be inventors but we also have a lot of people who have already invented, and they continue to come back year after year, meeting after meeting, to share their experiences."

"It's almost like a coming-to-church event, because we encourage people to get up and tell us where they are in their invention process," said Cooper.

At every meeting, encouraging and useful information comes out when members give reports on their latest progress or success. Cooper said people who think they have an idea for an invention should attend a meeting. In some cases, a little advice from experienced inventors like Crain will make a big difference in helping that would-be inventor decide to proceed, or not.

Cooper said the first meeting is free but after that, participation requires membership. Dues are $40 per year, with meetings held almost every month.

Neophyte inventors are practically desperate for help. Crain said several MIN members who attend the Muskegon meetings live in the Grand Rapids area, some are from the Holland/Zeeland area, and a couple sometimes come from Ludington. On at least one occasion, a person came all the way from the Traverse City area.

Crain is working to facilitate the start of  inventors' groups in Holland/Zeeland and in the Traverse City area.

"I'm talking to people, even as we speak. If somebody is interested in an inventor group in Zeeland/Holland, Grand Rapids or Traverse City, they could give me a call and I could get them on a list.

"The United Inventors network will be the parent organization for all the new groups we help start. United Inventors has done an outstanding job in assisting me and our group, and will be significant in helping these groups start in these other cities," said Crain.

"There aren’t any other animals like us out there, anywhere in western Michigan," he joked.

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