Don’t quit your day job so you can quit you day job! Inventing and bringing a technology to market takes twice as long and twice as much money. Don’t stress yourself or your family by introducing severe economic hardship and gamble by not maintaining an independent source of cash flow.
As a part of our series called “Meet The Inventors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Rob Yonover.
Dr. Rob Yonover received his Ph.D. in Geochemistry/Volcanology from the University of Hawaii with a Research Fellowship at NASA -Johnson Space Center and laboratory work at MIT. He invented the SeeRescue®Streamer survival technology, LIFE/FLOAT Rescue Board, Pocket Floatation Device, Pocket DeSalinator,,Â the Video Search and Rescue (vSAR) technology, and Fin-propelled Water Bike. The SeeRescue®Streamer technology is now in use by all branches of the U.S. military and has been credited with saving 4 lives to date. Dr. Yonover has authored several books including “Hardcore Inventing”, “Hardcore Health”, “Caregiver’s Survival Guide”, and “Brainstorm Islands” (kids). Dr. Rob has appeared on ABC Shark Tank, CBS Innovation Nation, CNN, PBS, and Discovery Channel. The SeeRescue®Streamer was recently chosen to be standard equipment on board all SpaceX manned flights to protect the astronauts!
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I was boring in Chicago, however, my family moved us to Miami when i was one. I was lucky enough to live on a lake and I woke up very early in the mornings which led me to a lifelong fascination with exploring nature as a solo explorer.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You gotta have plan”. A fishing mentor of mine told me that relative to fishing, but I have applied it to all aspects of life, including having backups or options when Plan A doesn’t come through (Plan B and Plan C are standing by)!
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
As a child, Gilligan’s Island and Flipper rocked my world as I dreamed of saving the day as the professor and having Ginger and Maryanne hanging on my every word. Mix in a little Flipper and you have the basic blueprint for my life as an inventor living in Hawaii among the sea creatures and inventing survival gear for humans.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. What was the catalyst that inspired you to invent your product? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?
I was in Hawaii flying in a rented single-engine plane that was sputtering. I looked down and saw a massive expanse of blue water and wondered how they would find us if we went down in that blue liquid haystack. I needed to be a needle that could be seen! The plane didn’t crash, but I couldn’t get that experience out of my mind. A few weeks later I flew over Christo’s art installation in Miami where he wrapped islands in pink plastic. From the air, it was visible for miles and that was what I needed to do — make myself a long pink needle of plastic to be seen in the blue haystack of the water (or the brown of the mountains)! It took years of tinkering before I figured out to put spreader bars on the long orange (graduated from pink to appease the Navy) streamer film to prevent it from twisting up in the air/water currents.
There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
I was doing crowdsourcing before it was a thing. I would ask a lot of people in all walks of life what they thought of my invention (in confidence of course if I hadn’t filed a patent yet). I took all the input and mulled it over and went with my gut and picked the inventions that I was most confident I could bring to market.
Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?
Nowadays, it’s pretty easy to search patents at “Google Patents” by entering keywords just like you would any patent search. You can also search Google itself to see if the product is actually being sold. Sometimes you may find a patent very similar to yours, but that means you were on the right track and you do have the option of trying to contact the inventor and possibly teaming up to bring the technology to market if they haven’t already.
Did you have a role model or a person who inspired you to persevere despite the hardships involved in taking the risk of selling a new product?
George Hemmeter, the inventor of the newspaper vending machine and the wheel balance technology was an early mentor of mine here in Hawaii. My father taught me to always persevere and keep chipping away to get where you want and/or to pivot along the way if one approach isn’t working.
For the benefit of our readers, can you share the story, and outline the steps that you went through, from when you thought of the idea, until it finally landed on the store shelves?
In particular, we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it. My basic premise is IP3 = Invent, Protect, Promote, Profit (see “Hardcore Inventing” book). Once you come up with your idea, proceed to search the patents to see if it has been done already. If not, contact a patent attorney (don’t quit your day job because you’re going to need the money to fund this and all continuing aspects of being an inventor). Once you file the patent, you are protect (“patent-pending” status) and you can begin promoting your invention to the media, investors, or possible licensees. I like to work on ideas that are simple, can be manufactured by yourself if necessary, and are small in size so that future storage and shipping costs are kept to a minimum. There is no shame in abandoning an idea once you hit an unmovable roadblock. Take it as a lesson learned and either modify the idea or revert to one of you other ideas. You can’t be afraid to fail and even try!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The original streamer was white because that is the only plastic color I could get for the type of material I needed. I colored it pink (like Christo’s artwork) to show it to my Navy friend, however, he thought it was too soft and feminine. I changed it to International Orange color after that because I didn’t want to be pre-judged in the future based on my embracing my feminine side.
The early stages must have been challenging. Are you able to identify a “tipping point” after making your invention, when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
The tipping point was when after repeatedly pushing and pitching for years, I didn’t quit and was invited to present my idea/business plan to a Venture Capital Group here in Hawaii. I came out guns blazing along with a newly received Navy approval for their testing of the technology. A write from the Pacific Business News was in the crowd and wrote an article about the technology and that led to a bidding war among licensing candidates. I stuck to my principles of always working the press (free advertising/3rd party endorsement) and it panned out when I was able to ink a 15 year licensing deal that put the SeeRescueStreamer on the map worldwide!
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Invented My Product” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You’re going to get rejected repeatedly. I was so used to having people hang up on me that after a while it didn’t phase me.
- Don’t get married to one idea. I loved the original pink color of the streamer, but I was not stubborn enough to resist changing it and that make it completely credible to the International Safety/Military community
- If you want it done right, do it yourself. An old adage that I didn’t believe until it repeatedly proved correct (and still does)!
- Don’t quit your day job so you can quit you day job! Inventing and bringing a technology to market takes twice as long and twice as much money. Don’t stress yourself or your family by introducing severe economic hardship and gamble by not maintaining an independent source of cash flow.
- Harder is better. Believe it or not, if it’s harder for you to get or achieve something, it’s actually better for you as person and professionally. To quote Bob Dylan, “Helpless like rich man’s child”. If it comes to easy, you want to have built the life skills to reach your potential as a person/inventor.
Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
Search Google to see if something like it is being sold and then search Google Patents to see if someone has patented it. If not, make sure there is a market for it as there is nothing worse than inventing something that no one wants or is willing to pay for.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own? Do as much as possible on your own and then pull the trigger on a qualified patent attorney. Without strong patent claims (critical part of the patent), you will not have much to defend and could get ripped off easily.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
For me it is hard to take other people’s money as you then owe them something. Back to rule #1, don’t quit your day job so you can fund your invention effort yourself and at your own pace. Note that even if you have a 40 hour a week job and sleep 40 hours, that still leaves over 40 hours a week of free time you can devote to bringing you invention into the world.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
My invention has saved at least 4 lives that I know about (likely more with the military) which to me means everything — way more than any dollar figure I have made from it. My invention also enabled me to survive taking care of my disabled wife and raising our two young children (See “Caregivers Survival Guide” book for more on that aspect).
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would like to see young kids rewarded for being inventive and creative. Perhaps invention contests for all ages of school children. The smartphone is destroying people’s creativity and I believe the only way to combat that is to incentivize creativity — pay people if we must to get them off their phones and out in nature creating with a pencil and paper!
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?
He or she might just see this if we tag them. Mark Cuban and I never finished our discussions during my Shark Tank episode. I am still waiting for his call back to pick my brain more on volcanology and inventing!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.