Return to Transcripts main page


Founder of Website that Funds Inventors and Founder of Invention Lab Profiled

Aired September 14, 2013 - 14:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: They are innovators, game changers, people pushing themselves, moving us all forward. They're the next scientists, musicians, poets, the next makers, dreamers, teachers, and geniuses. They are THE NEXT LIST.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Inside an old factory in San Francisco a small R-and-D outfit called Otherlab is busying plotting an energy revolution.

SAUL GRIFFITH, CO-FOUNDER, OTHERLAB: I don't want to just chip away at that problem. That is the project for our generation.

GUPTA: Otherlab is a hothouse of ideas, passion, and nuts and bolts inventions. It's the brainchild of Saul Griffith, and out of the box thinker, scientist, inventor, and winner of the coveted McArthur Genius Award.

GRIFFITH: It's fully pressurized.

GUPTA: Clear across the country, invention of a different sort -- Ben Kaufman, the 26-year-old founder of, is giving everyday inventors a chance to take their product ideas from inception to store shelves. And he's doing it with the help of an online community that's half a million strong. I went to Manhattan's west side to visit Quirky's new 45,000 square foot headquarters.

GUPTA: How you doing? Very nice to meet you.

BEN KAUFMAN, FOUNDER AND CEO, QUIRKY.COM: Welcome to Quirky's. Thanks for coming.

GUPTA: And I can tell you, I've never been anywhere quite like it.

Well, thanks for showing me around. I'm really excited. I want to see it literally from nuts to bolts, like how it all works.

KAUFMAN: We designed the office basically around the business. So the space you're standing in right now, come Thursday afternoon, gets transformed into sort of a theater-style environment.

All right, we are off. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Quirky product evaluation.

So 120 folding chairs come out here on this wood floor. Projection screens come down. All the department heads sit there. You have the entire Quirky staff plus guests as well as people all around the world.

The purpose of this is to crown brand-new inventors. This week thousands of ideas were submitted to, but only 12 have made it here to Quirky product evaluation. That first idea comes from Quirky inventor named Kirk Spiegel.

GUPTA: So what happens next? So the idea has gone through that community, it seems like it's shown some promise. What happens?

KAUFMAN: We'll start sketching. We'll start doing some research. So we'll do everything from industrial design to mechanical engineering to picking the colors and materials and the finishes. Now, our expert team here does a lot of that work. But at the same time, the community has a say and an impact in every step of the process.

The best products that we see are solution-oriented items. They're products that solve problems that a large number of people experience on a semi-regular basis. It's also something that we feel good about making. We don't just want to make more stuff. We want to make stuff that makes people live a happier life.

GUPTA: I love the kid's box cutter having three kids.

KAUFMAN: Basically we created this thing where people want to play with cardboard boxes. It's a cool thing, you make a fort out of it, but you don't want to let your kids cut up cardboard boxes. How do you make a safe cardboard cutter that kids can use?

GUPTA: I'll be one of your first customers on that product. And pencil sharpeners.

KAUFMAN: Motorcycle helmet with LED light indicators. So we created this motorcycle helmet where the whole back panel is a giant LED. As you brake, the whole back of your helmet lights up so there's this giant red light.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm Jake Zion (ph). I'm 23 years old, and I invented Pivot Power. I was very interested in trying to put -- you know, bring it to shelves in stores somehow. And what I got with Quirky was my face and name on the box and a royalty on every unit sold.

KAUFMAN: We purposely do not take any intellectual property rights from you. Until we tell you that we're going to make your product. So we actually share 10 percent of our offline revenue and 30 percent of our online revenue back with the community. We share that royalty not just with the inventor but with the community of people that helped that inventor. Our average product is actually owned, created, influenced by over 1,000 people.

GUPTA: Is there an average length from idea that you've decided has passed through the community, from that point to an actual product, what's the average time?

KAUFMAN: The average is around sort of 120 days.


KAUFMAN: But the beautiful thing is our record is 39 days. We've taken an idea from stretch submitted to our site to every store at bed, bath & beyond around the country in 39 days. No other company in the world can do that.


KAUFMAN: The reason this company got started and the reason why I'm here today because I firsthand witnessed how inaccessible an invention was, how hard it was to execute on a simple little product idea. My mom is one of the smartest businesswomen I've ever seen. I mean, she, from a business perspective, taught me almost everything I know.

MINDY KAUFMAN, BEN'S MOM: Working was a very important part of my life. I'm in manufacturing. So Ben always saw that you could make things. And I made things. So he was able to come to a factory and see things being made.

KAUFMAN: So I'd find any reason to get there. And I would get there, and anything was possible, right? There were machines making things. There were 18-wheelers pulling up, literally pulling away, you know, with palettes and palettes of displays. You could just see things go from a meeting to store shelves. That was awesome, right? Like my mom made that.

ROY KAUFMAN, BEN'S DAD: The story of Quirky is really about a working mom who basically believes in investing in her children. And this was a 17, 18-year-old young man who came to his mother with an idea where I thought the two of them were completely out of their mind.

KAUFMAN: I was literally sitting in the back of math class my senior year in high school and I was trying to figure out a way to listen to the white iPod shuffle without my teacher realizing that I wasn't listening to her.

MINDY KAUFMAN: So he came home with an idea on a piece of paper. I don't know what it was on. I was, like, great idea. Develop it. Do it.

KAUFMAN: So literally I went home, prototyped this product out of ribbon and gift wrap and created a lanyard headphone so the only distance I needed to clear was from here to here. And it was at that point that I showed that prototype to my parents, convinced them that it was a good idea to remortgage their house and hand me the money to go ahead and commercialize that product.

She made me do all sorts of spreadsheets. OK, what if you wind up with too much inventory? What if the tooling isn't right the first time? You know, what's the difference between air freight and sea freight? I did more diligence work associated with an investment for my mother than I have raising money from the top venture capital firms in the world.

MINDY KAUFMAN: I was, like, wow, on paper, this really works. Let's do it. I really just said "Let's do it." KAUFMAN: Growing up, I know what manufacturing here looked like. And it looked great. You know, it looked like people pretty happy in their jobs every day coming to work and making things. Now, that's very different than what I see when I travel abroad to factories and it's not necessarily the best of conditions, and it's not necessarily something you're happy about.

So while we've made most of our products in China in the past, there's a huge push right now to start bringing some projects back to the U.S. and to start proving the fact that we can literally take ideas from anywhere in the world and create jobs here. And that's the beautiful -- like talk about creating jobs. We'll take ideas from our inventors in Switzerland and make that stuff in Vermont. That's awesome.

We put $500,000 into this company in New Jersey just last week. And that's one product. You know, there's going to be a full factory of people making, you know, a dozen hardened steel pools for the next eight weeks. I could name 15, you know, injection molding machine operators from my mom's old plant that, you know, I think of when I think of U.S. manufacturing. And to me, it's exciting to think that we're going to have people like that again. And I'm going to be able to go 25 minutes to a plant in New Jersey and say, oh, hey, Larry. You know, how's she cooking today?

They still say I can't do it. I'm still, every day, I go up against sort of the age thing. But, you know, every year that goes by, every decision that I make that isn't sort of wildly unsuccessful is another proof point that I know what I'm doing. And I don't know when it goes -- I don't know when I lose the sort of young -- I'm the young entrepreneur, when I just become an entrepreneur. I'm thinking maybe 30? I don't know.

GUPTA: Ben Kaufman and his Quirky startup recently got a $68 million vote of confidence from two of Silicon Valley's biggest venture capital companies. The future at Quirky looks pretty bright.

Coming up next, what do sharks and robots have in common? You'll find out when we talk to Saul Griffith.


GUPTA: Saul Griffith, an out-of-the-box thinker and inventor.

GRIFFITH: Sometimes you just have an idea and you think, oh, no, I have the idea, and now I have to do it.

GUPTA: Compelling ideas that could break new ground on alternative energy and redefine robotics as we know it.

GRIFFITH: You think about everything, all of the consumer products, every machine that humanity has ever made, it's, you know, stiff and rigid. There's a completely green space of soft machines, and can they be more capable or as capable or have different applications to traditional machines? And you only have to look at biology. Shocks are all soft, squid, snails, worms. These things are profound machines that can perform high-performance tasks. So how far can we push these ideas to create new options, technological options for a whole lot of interesting applications?

GUPTA: How far do you think? What could that mean for robots like this? What are they capable of?

GRIFFITH: So the gray arm behind me, for example, weighs one or two pounds yet is the size of your arm. And when fully pressurized, that arm could lift a human at arm's length.


GRIFFITH: There's no hinges and bearings there. It's all done in these fabrics, so it's really built like a lot of biological systems. This works much more like a fish or a shark than it does like a robot. We're running this at very low pressure. At very high pressure, you wouldn't escape the grip.

GUPTA: How does that work?

GRIFFITH: So we're controlling the way that the fluid flows even to the skins and into the various chambers.

GUPTA: And the fluid is what?

GRIFFITH: The fluid in this case is air. Here is a way that we could really transform the cost of robotics. We will sew you a robot out of fabric and use pressurized fluids to make it work, and it will reduce the cost of robots 100-fold and make them 10 or 100 times for powerful, and they believed us.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: For us, it's tremendously important to have performers like Saul that are truly driven and that are truly daring. I'm Gil Pratt (ph), and I'm a program manager. One of the devices he's creating could be used in a robot that gets rid of IEDs.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These robots presently are very expensive. They cost around $100,000. The IEDs that they defend against cost only $10.

GUPTA: How did this idea come about in terms of actually creating a softer, more pliable robot?

GRIFFITH: For Christmas, I decided to give my niece an inflatable elephant that she could ride on. She was five or six that Christmas. We built a four foot high inflatable elephant. And the software tools worked. It all came together to look like an elephant. And then of course as soon as you built that thing, you're, like, wow, wouldn't it be cool if it could walk? As soon as you say that to your six-year- old niece, she bugs you every time you speak to her on the phone. "Where's my walking elephant, uncle Saul?" So then we had to, in fact, figure out how to do that.

PETE LYNN, PROJECT MANAGER, SOFT ROBOTICS: My name is Pete Lynn. I'm the inflatable robot assist. I'm the person who conserves and constructs and designs things inflatable. I met Saul many years ago. We have a shared interest in kites. It was sort of a natural progression from that into how do we actually make these structures more animated instead of just passively having them pushed around by the wind, how do you actually control these structures?

GUPTA: That's pretty rigid.

GRIFFITH: It is rigid. Yes, you can straddle this guy. It will carry you away. It's actually designed to carry a couple of people. So this is the control harness. These are things like the valves, the brain, the micro controller. Once we hook those up, then we can power it up and make all of these legs and the nose and the trunk actuate. These are just what they call bang-bang controls. Just on and off. This one is proportionally controlled.

GUPTA: Oh, wow, look at that.

GRIFFITH: So you can do high-precision placement. In this case we've just hidden the muscles on the inside. And then we are now proportionally changing the pressure on either side. We're able to do that to accurately steer this thing.

Not to belittle the technology, but in some respects, the desires of that six-year-old girl and the playfulness allowing the playfulness of working on that that has led to us working on this technology.

GUPTA: When we come back, Saul Griffith tells us how to make solar energy as cheap as coal and shares his ideas about inventing the future we're all going to live in.


GRIFFITH: And I don't want to just chip away at that problem. And we have to shift from fossil fuels one way or the other. And so that's exciting. That is the Apollo project for our generation.

GUPTA: People joke around that solar has been the next big thing for 20 years now. What is different about what Other Lab is doing and the way you're thinking about this?

GRIFFITH: We are very narrowly focused on utility solar, things that replace entire coal plants, if you like, and produce that amount of energy.

GUPTA: What are we looking at here? What size space is that?

GRIFFITH: Well, this is a simulated desert, and this is sort of a mile-wide field of tiny little mirrors. Traditional helio-stats are enormous. Building sized 20 or 30 feet on a site. So we're actually utilizing a mechanism much more like the way flowers, the stems of flowers, work when they follow the sun. In this case we're using fluids, you know, either air or water to hydraulically precisely steer these solar elements. We're looking at reducing the cost of that field by 80 percent.

LEILA MADRONE, PROJECT MANAGER, SOLAR ENERGY: I'm Leila Madrone, and I head up the Solar Energy Project. I met Saul when I was at MIT. We worked in the same lab. And I just came to Saul and I was, like, how can we actually make solar that's cheap? And he said, you know, I have this idea that's been moving around a little. I haven't done anything with it. Why don't you see what you can do with it? And so a year later we have a department of energy grant and partners, and we're ready to make it happen.

GRIFFITH: So we're here. I was one of the founders of this in 2006 and worked super hard full time and now have an advisory role. Without a doubt, what they're doing is the most innovative sort of furthest out there, most transformative new technology on the horizon in the energy industry.

GUPTA: Can you talk me through how it works? Let's say you're going to launch this thing.

GRIFFITH: So this thing will sit in a cradle located near to this sort of tether release system. These propellers will fire up, start spinning around and slowly the tether will be released. Once it gets to about the right altitude, it will transition from that launch mode into a generation mode where it will start to fly in circles. So the wind is going this way, it will fly counter-opposed to the wind.

You can generate enormous amounts of energy in that tiny propeller. You bring that down the tether to the ground, and then you feed that off to the grid. When this works, it really will disrupt the entire economics of that industry and produce much lower costs of electricity than the normal, you know, propeller on a stick.

GUPTA: That's what people think of when they think of a wind power is propeller on a stick. Why is this better?

GRIFFITH: So on a modern wind turbine, that propeller and that stick are enormous, so 300 tons of steel and aluminum and fiberglass and carbon and copper to build that thing. The very little tip of that propeller that's moving at very high speed produces almost all of the energy, 70 percent or 80 percent of the energy at the tip. So what they're trying to do is let's get rid of the stick, because that costs money. Let's get rid of that huge gearbox, because that costs money. Let's even get rid of two of the sticks and just fly in circles that last 25 percent of the tip.

It probably makes me sound like a hair shirt environmentalist, but three years ago I was, like, if I'm going to talk this talk about energy problems, I have to actually walk it and figure out what the solutions are. Initially I looked and measured how much energy I used. I'm, like, oh, god, I really am the planet-screwing hypocrite. I was using more energy than anyone. I was, like, OK, well, how do I make my life super fun and interesting really dramatically reduce the amount of energy?

One of the ways we use energy without realizing it is in short- distance car travel. About half the miles driven in America are driven in trips less than 10 miles long. I just wanted something that was a little bit different. On this one, the steering can lean so you can lean into the corners, which makes it feel like a bicycle. And you can take corners at whatever speed you want. So it's super fun, superfast. It does 20 miles per hour pretty much instantly up any hill. And you get equivalent of about 1,000 miles per gallon.

MADRONE: I really think Saul is a champion for his ideas. And he's also a champion for all the people who are working with him. He just wants to see all of us at our ultimate. Take smart people he knows, bring them in here, make their dreams come true and make the world a better place.

GRIFFITH: We have the good fortune as a group to be inventing the world that we're going to live in shortly. It's like we're imagining things are just over the horizon, and when we're bringing them to fruition, it's great to see. It's addictive.

GUPTA: One of the things that you talk about is this idea of wouldn't it be cool if? What did you mean by that?

GRIFFITH: I guess what I really mean by that is we don't advertise very well what scientists and engineers do. I mean, pretty much the job definition is one of optimism and wouldn't it be cool if? So it drives everything we do around here because everyone's, like, wouldn't it be cool if we could make an inflatable elf and bouncy castle walk? Wouldn't it be cool if we could make solar energy cheaper than coal? It's like inherently optimistic and beautiful.

I think I'm imagining it more as a catch cry for the next generation. We need an awful lot of children in Huxley's generation and your children's generation to grow up thinking, wouldn't it be cool if we did this to make the future a fabulous place to live?

GUPTA: For Saul Griffith, making the future a fabulous place to live means finding inventive ways to tap the potential of alternative energy. Ben Kaufman wants to give would-be inventors a way to see the right ideas made into real-life products. But whether it's revolutionizing robotics or opening a pathway for innovation, both Griffith and Kaufman are intent on disrupting the status quo and creating new ways of attacking tough problems. And that's why we put them on THE NEXT LIST.

I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Thanks for watching. Hope to see you back here next week.