John Ellis was at a Las Vegas convention center last week, pitching a product he invented to vanquish a common household headache: finding the ever-so-faint edge on a roll of tape.
His objective is to make it the kind of item you’d be able to find in the aisles of your local hardware store, or a big retailer like Staples or Target. But the first step in marketing his new gadget — retail price, $14.99 — was the National Hardware Show, where he had a display in a pavilion devoted to inventors.
The product, RollRanger, was conceived in Arlington, designed in Ukraine, made in China — and named by ChatGPT, the artificial intelligence software that responds to typed questions.
Ellis is not a newbie to the world of entrepreneurship or inventing. But he’s still looking for a break-out hit. He runs a consulting firm called Optics for Hire that designs lenses and related technology. When Mattel needed a lens for a new Barbie doll that includes a tiny camera, it called Optics for Hire. Same thing when Amazon needed to upgrade the vision systems in it warehouse robots, so that they could better spot obstacles.
“Our customers are mostly US companies that need physics expertise,” Ellis says. All of his 12 employees work in either Ukraine or Belarus, a neighboring country that is aligned with Russia, and has recently seen an influx of Russian troops and equipment. Power outages in Ukraine, and the challenge of shipping things back and forth to a war zone, have made doing business challenging, he says. His employees in Ukraine at times have had more pressing tasks than work — like rehabbing bomb shelters or helping family members who had to flee their homes.
Ellis has also developed new products. One was a light-up fan that can display animations as it spins. He developed that with a fellow Arlingtonian, the animator and author Rufus Butler Seder, and licensed it to a candy company that sells candy in fun packages (the candy goes into the handle of the fan.) Another product, seen last month on the QVC home shopping channel, is a knife sharpness detector which can light up red, yellow, or green to tell you whether the blade is dull or ready for slicing. The kitchen products company Farberware includes that technology in a $44 sharpener called the Sabatier SmartSharp.
But licensing technology can be a tough way to make money, Ellis says. Even after you’ve found a company that wants to use your invention in one of its products, like the knife sharpener, you earn a small licensing fee from every unit sold. “You want something that can be sold in high volume,” he says. With the RollRanger, he plans to take a different approach, handling production and distribution himself, and keeping more of the sale price, which he hopes to eventually get under $10.
Ellis says he initially had the impulse to solve the vexing problem of lost tape edges last January. “I’m over 40, I wear glasses, and I was dealing with the frustration,” he says.
By February, one of his employees in Ukraine had built a prototype using a laser to spot the edge based on a change in the way it reflects the light. But ambient light in the room caused too many problems, so Optics for Hire scientist Vitaly Tsukanov tried a mechanical approach, using a spring based sensor that touches the surface of the tape — a bit like a record needle rides the grooves of a record. By May, that version of the technology was working reliably; a red light illuminates when the sensor hits the edge. A built-in scraper can be used to detach the leading edge of the tape from the layer below. Ellis asked his attorney to file a provisional patent — a placeholder filing that helps to protect a new idea from being copied — and he made a short YouTube video to demonstrate it to potential partners who might want to license the technology.
At that point, Ellis was comfortable talking to outsiders about the idea. “If I ask someone, ‘Have you ever lost the edge of a roll of tape?’” he says, “they look at me like, ‘Duh… of course I have.’” Ellis sent a set of digital engineering drawings to a factory in China to get a few samples made, and to get price quotes.
By early November, Ellis had received 10 prototypes from China (cost: $650), which he gave to friends, employees, and a major supplier of tape. He got feedback that the device was a bit hard to hold, and that the light sometimes went off when there was no edge — a false positive. His team sent a second iteration of drawings to China that refined the device based on that feedback.
While the tape supplier didn’t seem interested in licensing the invention, Ellis did learn that finding the tape edge is the top frustration people have when using tape. No one else seemed interested in licensing it, either. “We had some conversations, but there wasn’t that immediate match,” he says. But, he adds, “this is the only thing I’ve ever worked on where people were so enthusiastic about it. It just seemed like this needed to get to market.” So by mid-December, Ellis made the decision to launch the product independently. He hired outside consultants to help with package design and a plan for retail distribution, but when it came to choosing a name, he consulted ChatGPT, the recently-launched — and free — artificial intelligence engine.
“I said, ‘I need product names for a tool that finds the edge of a roll of tape,’” Ellis says. ChatGPT spat out a set of options. “I read them to my family over the holidays, and RollRanger was the one my wife and my sister responded to most,” he says. In January, he filed for trademark protection of the name, set up a website for the product, and figured out a design for his booth at the National Hardware Show.
Ellis estimates it cost him between $25,000 and $45,000 to get the product to the point where he could pitch it at the trade show — but he admits that it’s hard to calculate how much time his employees spent on the RollRanger, versus “paying projects” with clients.
Warren Tuttle is an entrepreneur and author who helps put together the “Inventor Spotlight” area at the National Hardware Show. He’s also the agent who helped make the connection between Ellis and Farberware, his client, for the knife sharpening product.
Tuttle says that getting a new product into stores without an established partner like Farberware is tough. “Many things need to fall into place,” he said, but it can be rewarding. (He took that path with Misto, a reusable spray bottle that holds oil for use in cooking.) But the RollRanger doesn’t just need to solve a problem that people know they encounter regularly, Tuttle says — it needs to do it at a price that they’ll be willing to pay, with a sufficient profit margin for everyone involved to make money. For a $10 product sold in a store, the cost to manufacture the product and ship it to a warehouse needs to be about $2, Tuttle says.
At the convention in Vegas last week, Ellis stood at his booth for hours on end, chatting with product buyers from big hardware store chains in the US and Canada. He was planning to place an initial order for 1000 RollRangers. “If I’m lucky,” he writes via e-mail, “they’ll test the product in stores later this year.” At that point, consumers will have the opportunity to pass judgment on whether the RollRanger is an essential tool for anyone who uses tape — or just another gadget.
Scott Kirsner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.