A handful of people crowd around Brian Flanagan, 45, as he demonstrates a solar-powered doghouse featuring a wireless camera, temperature monitor and heating system during the 51st annual Minnesota Inventors Congress in Redwood Falls, Minn.
“It’s the ultimate doggie house to keep your canine cool in summer and warm in winter,” says Flanagan, of Eden Prairie, Minn., touting the K9 Solar Lodge that he designed and built with fellow inventors Rick Miller, 54, and Thomas McGrew, 48.
A few booths down, Vickie Weber, 41, of Welcome, Minn., is selling Scicle Socks, insulated, foam-sleeved freezer pop holders that she designed to “keep your treats frozen, not your fingers.”
Across the aisle, Clint Fruitman, 62, of Chandler, Ariz., is wearing flexible rubber pads-dubbed TherapEze pads-that can be used as ice or heat packs to mold to the user’s body.
Billed as the world’s oldest annual invention convention, the Minnesota Inventors Congress provides a forum for exhibitors to market their creations to prospective manufacturers who scour the show each June for the next pop-up camper or four-pronged cane, two products “discovered” at the event since 1958. Last year’s two-day gathering drew 63 inventors from 14 states to Redwood Falls (pop. 5,272).
Harold Fratzke, 78, has exhibited 20 inventions, including a bicycle sidecar, in the last 18 years. Fratzke’s Step-Up System, a step for the back bumper of a pickup truck, won the Best of Show award at the 2007 convention and has sold 300 units.
“I get so excited watching something go from an idea to an actual product,” says Fratzke, a retired farmer from nearby Cottonwood, Minn.
A group of local businesspeople, led by farmer Bob Starr, founded the Minnesota Inventors Congress with tinkerers like Fratzke in mind. Starr recognized that the region’s inventors-working people creating real-life products-could help stimulate economic development in the Redwood Falls area.
“Bob wanted to connect all those great ideas with local manufacturers who could produce them,” says Deb Hess, the event’s executive director.
An agricultural community on the Redwood River, Redwood Falls is synonymous with the Minnesota Inventors Congress (MIC). For nearly a week each year, MIC banners hang from lampposts, and marquees on booked-solid motels welcome inventors. In addition to the 2,000 annual attendees and worldwide news coverage, the convention’s economic impact has been strong.
“The growth of Redwood Falls is directly related to the Minnesota Inventors Congress,” says Mayor Gary Revier, 60. “Carl Oja is just one example of that.”
Oja, a St. Paul, Minn., salesman who died in 1992, exhibited his four-footed cane-the Quad-Cane-at the invention convention in 1964. Three years later, based on the success of the product, he moved to Redwood Falls and founded ActiveAid, a medical equipment manufacturing company. Today, ActiveAid’s 40 employees make and annually sell $4 million in medical products-from bed safety rails to emergency rescue boards.
For Grant Hanson, 59, his Walker Rescuer invention already is a personal success. When a 2007 car accident left a friend’s wife unable to walk without falling, Hanson designed a six-wheeled walker with pivoting bars that wrap around the user’s chest. The woman now is able to walk her dog.
“Of all my inventions, I’m most proud of this because it helped a human being,” Hanson says. “It gave her some freedom.”
Hanson’s invention won both the Best of Show and the People’s Choice award last year. Like many of the inventors who attend the Minnesota Inventors Congress, Hanson’s tinkering is a part-time hobby; he’s a full-time tractor mechanic who makes house calls from his farm in Glenwood, Minn.
“The invention business has a lot of fly-by-night scam artists, but this event has a good reputation that goes back 50 years,” Hanson says. “I can’t wait to come back next year.”