Pipe dream fulfilled
Calgary plumber invents tool he hopes will revolutionize the industry
July 24, 2014
Anyone who has ever invented something – or those who regularly tune into television shows like Dragons’ Den and Shark Tank – will know that the starting point for most inventions is finding a solution to a common problem. Once you have an idea, the next steps usually involve drawings on a piece of paper, building a rudimentary prototype and the realization that getting your product to market will not be easy. It will involve significant investments in time, money, research, and testing, to name a few. And then there is the patent process: often difficult to navigate for first-time inventors and unnerving as you try to cover all the bases and make sure no one steals your idea.
Red Seal Master Plumber David Hornstein and his business partner Micah Libin, co-founders of Platypus Tools Inc., know a thing or two about the invention and patenting process, having just gone through it over the past year en route to inventing a tool that Hornstein had envisioned for the past decade. Hornstein, who has also owned his own company – Aquality Plumbing and Heating Inc. in Calgary, AB – since 2004, says he had always been frustrated with the traditional methods plumbers used to pull toilets, such as scooping the water out with a cup, absorbing it with a sponge, using a plunger or sucking it up with a Shop-Vac. Each option inevitably creates a mess, the spread of contaminated water and can lead to back problems.
As a solution, he came up with the “Trunk” – a tool designed to not only speed up the process of pulling a toilet, but also to stop the spread of dirty water. The Trunk sucks up the water in the S trap of the toilet into an aluminum reservoir by pulling a handle. Then it blows the water down the far side of the S trap and down the drain by pushing the handle. The main feature of the trunk is it lets plumbers draw the water out of the toilet while it is still on the floor, which allows for a completely dry tool and toilet before pulling it. It also includes a check valve so that the water is not lost or spilled while transitioning the tool.
Hornstein, a 15-year plumbing veteran, had one or two different starting points in getting his idea for the Trunk to market over the years, but between running his own business and having a young family, he was just too busy. “You start getting blocks when you try and create anything new,” he recalls. “You need to have a lot of time to have follow ups and make sure you’re getting in contact with the right individuals.”
But that all changed when he partnered with Libin in 2013. With more than 17 years of management, finance and legal experience, Libin immediately recognized the value the Trunk could have for the plumbing industry. “He comes from a completely different side of business,” explains Hornstein. “Between the two of us, with our contacts, we were able to put the tool into the run that we were looking for. Once we had the patent, we could finally release it to the industry and let them know what it was.”
Hornstein admits that in his first two attempts with the Trunk he could not connect with the right people, and chalked it up to bad timing. But this time around, he and Libin came up with a business plan about how to communicate their idea to the right people, while signing confidentiality agreements with everyone along the way until the patent-pending status was secured.
After creating a company, Platypus Tools Inc., they met with a designer in Calgary. It turned out the designer was more interested in doing moulds as opposed to the actual development of their product, but that meeting led them to Red Deer College, which was instrumental in introducing them to their current design engineer team in St. Albert, AB. Hornstein then gave them the miniature prototype of the Trunk that he built in his garage. “They took that idea and came up with the graphics, manufacturer’s drawings and the actual prototype design,” he says.
At the same time as their idea for the Trunk was becoming a reality, the founders of Platypus were pushing forward with their patent lawyer to ensure their concepts were protected and that they could communicate with the general public about what they were creating. “Our attorney gave us a lot of challenges back. He made us come up with a whole bunch of different ways as to how the tool could work. There were times when we were frustrated because we felt we were never going to get the patent,” remembers Hornstein. “He did a really good job of pushing us really hard to make sure that we were covered extremely solid on our method.”
For their first run, more than 1000 Trunks will be manufactured and ready for market by early September. Of that number, 56 were presold to plumbers. This led to a pre-order of 156 Trunks by BA Robinson, host of a two-day parade of products event Platypus attended in Edmonton and Calgary in late April with its prototype. On top of securing the pre-orders, Hornstein boasts he was able to meet with his peers and explain to them what the product can do.
“I got everything from high fives to one guy picked me up and gave me a bearhug because he thought it was so cool,” he quips. In addition, owners and wholesalers among the advanced purchasers expressed interest in using the Trunk as a shop tool. “They were purchasing it for their guys for all their vans; we weren’t even having to sell directly to each plumber.”
Hornstein notes there is always the dream that a wholesaler will put in a large order for your product right of the bat, but in reality, he expects order numbers for the Trunk to steadily increase after the initial run – once the industry sees what the product can do. “So far the response has been so positive and we think we will get there,” he asserts. Pre-orders now stand at around 500 with sales from Bartle & Gibson and Wolseley in Southern Alberta.
And it is not just the plumbing industry that has shown an interest in the Trunk. There has also been strong interest from the cottage country industry, which could use the Trunk to winterize RVs and drain boats, and from the general contracting community.
Having spent the past year going through the invention process, and with the Trunk gearing up for launch, Hornstein and Libin have decided to put the knowledge they gained to good use. Through Platypus, they will also act as consultants, listening to plumbers and other people in the industry who, like Hornstein, may have had an idea on the shelf for 10 years or have just come up with something, but do not know how to get started.
At the April trade show alone, countless people approached Hornstein with ideas they have for new and innovative products. “We don’t want to be a one-dimensional company with just the Trunk,” he says. “It should be a really fun part of the business to be able to listen to peoples’ ideas, see if we feel they’re viable, and what else we can do to push more products that are specifically designed for people by their industry.”
When asked if he has any advice for would-be inventors, Hornstein responds do not let a busy schedule get in your way. For example, he is actually busier now than he was 10 years ago, when he first came up with the idea for the Trunk but did not think he had the time to see it to fruition.
“I guess that’s the interesting thing about life: we all think we’re really busy and that there’s no time for anything extra. But you can always find a way to do more,” he says.