Holland inventor succeeds in furniture


Mike Suman and Lynn Smith will have their leaning shelving system produced and distributed by an Ohio firm. Photo by Michael Buck

A first-time inventor in Holland has sold the patent and production rights to her shelving innovation to a major wood furniture manufacturer in Ohio — and started a product development company in the process.

Lynn E. Smith, a financial advisor and 32-year employee of Robert W. Baird & Co. in Holland when she retired 18 months ago, came up with her original idea for a leaning shelving system in 2008. In 2009, she partnered with experienced inventor Mike Suman to help her develop the idea, and the pair also launched a product development company called AngleWorks, operated from her home.

A lot of time and money invested in the idea finally paid off: A utility patent with 22 claims to the originality of the product was issued by the U.S. Patent Office two years ago, and in December Smith and Suman sold their iLean patent to Sauder Woodworking Co. in Archbold, Ohio, for an undisclosed amount.

Smith said her success “may give some other inventors a little hope because I didn’t know anything about the furniture business when I started this project five years ago. If I can do it, anybody can do it.”

However, it took a “substantial investment” — she won’t reveal the amount, but it’s more than just a few thousand dollars — and a lot of effort, producing at least 10 levels of prototypes while experimenting with different materials. She also held on to her day job, at least until after the iLean patent was secured.

“Boy, would I recommend that to investors,” she said. “And please don’t borrow any money from your mother-in-law. That’s another bad idea.”

Smith said she did not borrow from her mother-in-law, but her point is that investing in product development can be very risky and an inventor should avoid borrowing “unless and until the product shows real legs in the marketplace.”

With iLean, AngleWorks retained a variety of professional expertise, including:

  • Progressive AE in Grand Rapids: design review, branding, marketing, web site development.
  • Price Heneveld in Grand Rapids: patent search and utility patent application.
  • Disher Design & Development in Zeeland: engineering support and CAD.
  • Kiekover Marketing in Grand Rapids: focus group testing.
  • Great Lakes Wood in Holland: prototyping and manufacturing.
  • Performance Testing Services in Allendale: product validation testing.

“My background is really left-brained,” she said, referring to her career in investment banking. However, she said she has always enjoyed being creative, designing her home and its furniture and accessories. She began making sketches of a leaning shelf system she could use on her deck to hold an herb garden after failing to find anything like it in a store.

“I designed it because I couldn’t buy it,” she said.

As she became more involved in it, she realized she lacked essential knowledge about manufacturing, and a mutual friend suggested she talk to Suman, who holds more than 50 patents and recently wrote a book, “Should Your Idea Become a Business?” 

Suman, who writes a local newspaper column about innovation and does a regular show on WGVU Broadcasting, is heavily involved with the Grand Rapids Inventors Network and the Muskegon Inventors Network. 

“We can all invent, mock up and dream, but to become CEO is a whole different set of skills,” said Suman, one that entails worries about cash flow, debt, manufacturing, employees, insurance, lawyers and so forth. Sometimes engineers who are great inventors do not have the personality required “for making cold calls and hearing the word ‘no’ all the time,” added Suman.

What Smith and Suman finally patented is a wooden product, an integrated system of grooved shelves and steel support wires that does not require tools to assemble or alter. 

“People often talk about location, location, location relative to real estate values,” said Smith. “When developing a new product, value is ultimately derived from distribution, distribution, distribution. Through our relationship with Sauder, we not only gain access to their huge network of retail outlets, we also get an established leader in lean, green manufacturing.”

“Sauder is huge,” she said, in the world of ready-to-assemble furniture, although iLean comes already assembled, which is a plus.

“In terms of a partner, we hit a home run,” said Smith. Sauder is “very well known in the furniture industry, but more importantly, they have distribution everywhere.” She said Sauder products are sold at such retailers as Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, Walmart, Menards and IKEA.

“The combination of elegant function and versatility make iLean a great candidate for development to mass retail,” said Michael Lambright, director of marketing at Sauder. “The simple design lends itself to variation in material and production methods to suit the needs of specific sales channels and consumer lifestyles. We’re very excited about the possibilities.”

ILean will be produced at Sauder’s 6-million-square-foot plant in Archbold, and distribution to major retailers will begin this summer.

Smith and Suman, as AngleWorks, are now working with clients on development of several potential innovations, although Smith said she was not at liberty to discuss those.

Suman, 62, is currently involved with five companies in partnerships, and his own company, Product and Market Development, is based in Caledonia. Previously, he was a vice president at Prince Corp. in Holland and then a group vice president for Johnson Controls after it acquired Prince.

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