Wellington inventor hopes to turn kitchen complaint to cash with StirMate

06/18/2012 5:00 AM

06/19/2012 4:50 PM

Phil Wylie doesn’t like his Malt-O-Meal lumpy.

And what started out as a minor gripe about hot breakfast cereal could make him a millionaire.

Wylie, a retired minister from Wellington, developed a gadget called the StirMate that stirs food inside a microwave oven.

“It’s impossible to make without lumps,” he said of his cereal.

StirMate is two slotted plastic paddles that lock together crosswise. They are dropped into a bowl of soup, sauce or Malt-o-Meal and held firmly in place using small hooks mounted inside of the oven. The oven’s turntable turns and the paddles don’t, mixing the food. Because it evens out the heat, it keeps food from developing hot spots and splattering.

Wylie, 59, developed StirMate through a half-dozen variations. At one point, he nearly quit in frustration because he couldn’t figure out how to hold the paddles down effectively. He said he wandered onto his back porch, looked up and asked God why he had given him this obsession if he wasn’t going to allow him to find the answer. And, he said, God answered maybe.

“Well, it sure seemed like it to me,” he said, with a laugh, “because immediately the solution popped into my head that not only fixed the problem, but dramatically expanded the range of uses. It also provide the strongest element for the patent.”

But development of the gadget over the last year and a half was perhaps the easiest part. What was harder is what often stumps inventors: turning a product into a company. That means writing a business plan, finding investors, enlisting manufacturers and fulfillment staff, filing the patents and incorporation papers, and then figuring out how to advertise it effectively.

It passed one early test. Two of his mentors, John and Laurene Gast, of the Inventors Association of South Central Kansas, told him it needed to sell for five times the actual manufacturing cost. He sells the StirMate for $13 for one set, which has three sizes, or $20 for a set of two.

“John’s quote was: ‘This thing will make you a lot of money, but I guarantee you’ll earn every penny,’ and that’s exactly right,” Wylie said.

He’s most of the way through the daunting process. He’s raised about $400,000, mostly from local investors in Wellington, although he still owns the great majority of the company. He has StirMates ready and waiting. He’s hired Wichita-area marketing firm Armstrong/Shank to figure out how to get the word out.

Mark Chamberlin, director of Armstrong/Shank’s marketing operation, said his firm tested the StirMate with a focus group through the Research Partnership.

He said it’s one of those products people didn’t really know they wanted until they used it. It extends the use of a microwave oven from a reheating machine to a cooking machine.

“To see them get that, say ‘Oh, I see. Yeah.’ That was really neat,” Chamberlin said.

They built a website to take orders, www.thestirmate.com. In recent weeks, they started with news releases to media, and have hired a third-party program that finds influential bloggers in the field of interest and encourages them to write about the StirMate.

The next move, Chamberlin said, is to test commercials and, perhaps, an infomercial. Oh, and they need to contract with a local call center to be ready when orders come in.

Wylie insisted that the StirMate be made and shipped locally. It is manufactured by Kansas Plastics in Wellington and packaged and shipped by Futures Unlimited, a Wellington nonprofit that employs those with disabilities.

Wylie doesn’t know how many people will buy the StirMate – to date he’s sold about 1,000, mostly to well-wishers in Wellington. But he and his backers think the potential is vast. There are 200 million microwave ovens in North America alone, he said. If owners of even 1.5 percent of them buy one, that’s $3 million.

“If this is even modestly successful it will create dozens of jobs in Wellington, Kansas,” he said.

And, he said, he’s already on to the next invention: a roller coaster that uses space more efficiently; and a way of preventing condensation in portable oxygen concentrating machines.

Wylie is deeply embedded in Wellington. He pastored Wellington’s First Southern Baptist Church for 22 years and knows virtually everybody in town. But he’s also a life-long tinkerer who started out in college in engineering and is constantly turning design problems over in his head.

The two passions come together in his little plastic microwave paddles.

“So many jobs have gone overseas, and I can complain and wish the politicians would do something,” he said. “This gives me a way to help.”

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