Designing new and improved camping and outdoor gear has consumed Bill Ostrom’s life for close to three decades.
The Thunder Bay innovator and retailer of backpacks has launched a new venture that starts this spring with his participation in the Northwestern Ontario Innovation Centre’s Kickstarter campaign.
Kickstarter is a crowdsourcing financing initiative that raises money by appealing to “backers” to bring locally-produced innovation to a product-reality stage.
It’s a new age method of financing that’s sweeping Canada, enabling entrepreneurs and inventors to refine their products through a form of online fundraising where large groups of donors contribute large or small amounts of cash to help launch products.
For 26 years through his business, Ostrom Outdoors, Ostrom designed packs for generations of outdoor enthusiasts in northwestern Ontario, and has even worked as a consultant with the Canadian military in developing and field testing various prototypes.
But the rising cost of materials and the size of his small company made it impossible to go into full-scale manufacturing.
Rather than invest heavily in new equipment, he’s put the business up for sale.
Ostrom’s new endeavour is called Go-Kin Packs, which involves a small device that fits into a daypack or fanny pack that uses the walking motion to generate its own electricity. The “Kin” stands for kinetic energy.
The device comes with a USB port which can be used to charge electronic devices like cell phones, tablets, laptops or batteries.
Ostrom is pitching it as an environmentally friendly, portable power source that’s available anywhere, anytime.
Through the military, he cultivated a relationship with Queen’s University’s commercialization wing and acquired the technology through an exclusive licensing agreement.
Ostrom said the first prototype produced at Queen’s was a “massive” 40 pounds, about the size of a full pack, but producing only two or three watts.
The second prototype weighed in at 20 pounds and generated six watts.
He worked with them to get the third prototype down to three pounds and producing 12 watts a day at a fast walk.
“It’s comparable to portable solar panels in the marketplace except we don’t rely on sunshine,” said Ostrom.
A fourth prototype is coming out shortly with improved internal circuitry, and a molded and durable plastic covering.
Cables extending from a fly-wheel on the device can be hooked on ankle bracelets or the loop tabs on the back of a hiking boot as you walk.
Ostrom sizes up his biggest market as the military. With so much technology in the field, the average Canadian soldier in Afghanistan used 24 to 30 AA batteries a day for a weapon’s electronic sighting, satellite communication and GPS.
Ostrom displayed his gadget at an Ottawa military trade show last November to good reviews.
But the military procurement process is glacial and the Department of Defence has spent millions working with B.C. company with a device that generates electricity using carbon fiber knee braces, he said.
Ostrom would rather put his product on the consumer market this fall and hope the military comes around.
“We want to hit the outdoor travel and recreation industry and industrial sectors such as geologists, foresters, biologists in the field. The farther they are away from a power grid, the more likely they’re going to need our power.”
With a goal of raising $30,000, Ostrom said he’ll use the Kickstarter campaign to gauge consumer reaction.
Nick Kolobutin, a commercialization specialist at the Northwestern Ontario Innovation Centre, said people finance all kinds of projects through crowdsourcing campaigns, but technological gadgets seem to resonate the best with backers, many of whom are usually inventors themselves.
“You don’t have to give the product away. It finds early adopters looking for new technologies.”
Having a successful Kickstarter campaign that meets or surpasses its goal helps build up credibility to validate your business and helps leverage other forms of financing.
“There are people tinkering in garages that are coming out with new novel things that are marketable, but they need a platform to get it out there,” said Kolobutin.
“There are small entrepreneurs who don’t know how to get started and banks won’t touch them. Kickstarter allows them to get product out there, prove it works, and gives them some confidence.”
Kolobutin said it’s important to get the sales pitch right, “the value proposition,” so that it connects with an audience.
“It comes down to how cool is that product? How great is this story that is being pitched from the founder? Does it resonate with the market?”
It means story-boarding through video to demonstrate how the product works and to reach out to people about how that product will enhance their lifestyle.
“Successful Kickstarter campaigns are really about storytelling,” said Kolobutin.
“People always have a story about why they developed the product and if people can resonate with that story, they’re more likely to have an emotional attachment to the entrepreneur or the product. Anytime emotion is involved people’s purse strings get a little looser and want to spend.”