When "invention machine" Quirky launched in 2009, it made a name for itself hocking plastic utensils and cord organizers—designed by you, for you. But over the past year, it's made a play to move into turning your home into a Jetsons-worthy utopia. And it's got the means—and brains—to do it.
The first phase of Quirky's mission was partnering with GE to grant its designers access to GE's library of patents. Not long after, it hired former president of Frog Design, Doreen Lorenzo, as its new president.
Lorenzo was at Frog for 17 years, and played a major role in transforming it from a small studio run by Apple’s earliest product designers into a 1,000 person design powerhouse, and her goal is to do the same at Quirky. The motive to her move, she told Gizmodo this morning, is the chance to shepherd products from design to manufacturing in one fell swoop; something that wasn’t possible at Frog. “In the design world, sometimes you put the baby out there and it goes through so many different iterations with a client before it gets to the marketplace, and it doesn’t actually end up being what you thought it was going to be,” she explained.
Quirky, if you’re not familiar, invites inventors to submit their designs for peer review online. The best ideas reach critical mass, at which point Quirky’s in-house team of designers and engineers click into gear, figuring out the best way to bring a rough concept into production at warp speed. The whole process turns the traditional client/designer relationship on its head. “We’ve always classified Quirky as an invention machine,” Quirky CEO Ben Kaufman said over the phone today. “And as time has gone on we’ve been able to take on deeper and deeper types of inventions.”
This year, that means the app-enabled smart home. As part of the company’s collaboration with GE, it's been able to open up GE’s entire patent library to the Quirky community, including GE patents for “modules used for commercial fleet tracking and vehicle navigation systems” and “holographic storage technology.” The whole idea is to move Quirky away from spatulas and towards more sophisticated household inventions.
Over the next month, the company will launch its first wave of GE co-branded products, including a smart power strip and a connected clock. The team is paying special attention to the kitchen, developing a concept for a pH-sensing milk jug called Milkmaid and rolling out the Egg Minder, a funny little tray that tracks the freshness of your eggs. Other products on the drawing boards of the Quirky community include an app-controlled sprinkler system and a sensor that turns any basketball hoop into a digital scoreboard. All of these new co-branded devices are controlled by an app called WINK, which will serve as a software platform for every connected invention developed at Quirky.
Does Nest (or any other connected home company) have reason to worry? Yes and no. Quirky isn’t developing house-wide systems just yet; right now, most of these products are experiments with bringing sensors into domestic spaces. After all, it remains to be seen whether consumers will need (or even want) kitchen appliances that talk to their smartphones. On the other hand, Quirky's business model bridges the gap between consumers and designers by turning the former into the latter—and that could be the wild card.