August 1, 2014

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Cleveland firm an inventors’ sanctuary

CLEVELAND — A low-cost spinning toothbrush. A plastic paint can with a spout. A kids’ tricycle with a built-in squirt gun. Each started as an idea at a company run by two former college buddies and now operating out of a 76-year-old converted church.

Nottingham-Spirk Design Associates has sold its ideas to a variety of companies, including Newell Rubbermaid, Little Tikes, Huffy, Invacare, Procter & Gamble and Black & Decker. Product designs emerge from brainstorming sessions where designers try to make keen observations about ordinary things.

“What we have found is that by being outside of the bureaucracy of the average corporation, we’re free to do anything we want,” the tall, thin, often smiling co-CEO John Nottingham said. “If we come up with something, then we’ll show it to a company, and if it’s interested then we can make a deal.”

Cooper Woodring, interim executive director of Industrial Designers Society of America, said product design firms generally work for corporate clients, consulting on specific projects. Nottingham-Spirk stands out nationally in its determination to come up with ideas independently.

It’s important to come up with new ideas to start up new ventures or jazz up sales of established ones, he said.

“Ask American manufacturing companies today, and they will probably say 70 percent of profits comes from products they didn’t have three years ago,” Woodring said.

There’s millions, even billions, to be made from products that take off with consumers.

The idea for Sherwin-Williams paint cans with twist tops and built-in pour spouts began when designers realized from experience that metal paint cans could be messy and cumbersome.

“We couldn’t think of another consumer product that you need a screwdriver to open and a hammer to close,” said designer Craig Saunders.

A Nottingham-Spirk patent also led to the spinoff SpinBrush Co., which made what eventually became the Crest SpinBrush electric toothbrush. The idea grew out of a patent Nottingham-Spirk obtained in the early 1990s for spinning lollipops, which became a popular children’s toy.

Nottingham-Spirk, with about 70 employees, also designed the Swiffer SweeperVac that has become a well-known product for Procter & Gamble Co.; a swivel Christmas tree stand; easier to hold hand tools; and a spinning brush for washing dishes.

Three years ago, Nottingham-Spirk spent $15 million to buy and remodel the former First Christ Scientist Church, built in 1931. The design firm had been in a factory building and a large house before consolidating in the church.

A large pipe organ that came with the church plays occasionally (helped by a computer) for visitors to the redesigned building, which the company calls Nottingham-Spirk Innovation Center.

The church pews have been replaced by work stations. There’s a colorful domed ceiling inside the former sanctuary, but no stained glass windows or any other religious symbol. Former Sunday school classrooms now hold tools and machines to form and mold metals and plastics, where designers’ ideas can be turned into prototypes.

The goal of staff brainstorming is a “wow” idea. Designers listen to an idea presentation and vote one of three ways: wow, that’s nice or who cares?

Even an idea that doesn’t dazzle at first has value, co-CEO John Spirk said.

“Sometimes the timing isn’t right, or we’re looking for another piece,” he said. “We’re constantly referring to things we put on the shelf maybe 10 or 15 years ago. We’re not trying to solve all the problems of the world, at least not right away.”

The two CEOs became friends in the early 1970s at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Now they and their staff draw ideas from real-life observations, often from the products they see on display at stores such as Wal-Mart and Target.

Barbara Carver, vice president of the New York College of Health Professions, said the company has a reputation for creativity and has helped her with product and graphic design projects.

Although companies can contract with it on a fee or shared-risk basis, Nottingham-Spirk can reap the benefits of an innovation for years if it holds onto the intellectual property rights, or it can sell those rights. It also tries to start up new companies, then find buyers for them.

Nottingham-Spirk has obtained nearly 500 commercialized patents since its founding in 1972. It’s a substantial number for a firm its size, said Thomas Lockwood, president the Boston-based Design Management Institute.

He said Nottingham-Spirk, as a small, regional firm, has to compete with better known design and innovation companies with offices across the United States and internationally, such as Continuum, Frog Design, Ziba Design and IDEO.

Nottingham says products commercialized from the company’s patents have generated sales of about $30 billion. He would not disclose product-specific sales figures. Sherwin-Williams and Church & Dwight Co., in Princeton, N.J., which now owns the Crest SpinBrush, also declined to reveal such information.

One Nottingham-Spirk designer now is working on an electric kitchen knife, but what makes it different from any other is top secret.

Others are trying to come up with a new kind of pumpkin carving tool, or a snazzy new kind of skateboard. Another’s project is a juice chiller for a desktop or shelf. One lab is working on innovations for the door of a sport utility vehicle.

In partnership with the New York-based Innovation Fund, Nottingham-Spirk is developing “flavor tops” that can fit onto ordinary water bottles and hold concentrated powders to flavor the water or add a medicine.

“It’s a high energy atmosphere,” said Saunders, a Nottingham-Spirk designer for 25 years.

“Because the job seems to change all the time, that makes it exciting, plus getting to learn about so many different companies and industries and trying to be clever. That’s the fun part,” he said.