Archive for Sunday, July 30, 2000

Businessman creates passion for inventions

July 30, 2000


— Inventors have tried for years, without success, to come up with a perpetual motion machine.

Maybe they should use Ralph Lagergren as a model.

What I try to do is find an industry that has been stagnant, that has basically sat for years without much change, and then try to go in and turn the industry upside down.Ralph Lagergren

Even while sitting in an otherwise-empty motel restaurant, Lagergren is rarely at rest -- now booting up a laptop computer, now opening a sample case, now pulling out a pamphlet.

He's not an inventor himself, but the Wamego businessman makes his living bringing others' ideas to fruition through his one-man company, Rimfire Management.

The laptop contains video clips and other promotional material for "4 Fish Fly Free," a children's show using puppets to teach not only such life lessons as cooperation and telling the truth, but also music theory.

The sample case holds the "Z-Writer" pen -- an implement worn strapped to the middle finger, so computer users can switch from writing to typing without having to hunt for a pen -- in various color schemes and corporate logos.

"It's the pen you use, not lose," Lagergren said.

And the pamphlet shows the "MudBuggy," a device designed to cut the amount of time and effort contractors spend installing drywall.

It's a diverse collection, but with one common thread -- all of them grew from the imaginations of Lagergren's fellow Kansans.

"I think there's more creativity in this state than normal," Lagergren said. "I don't know if it's farmers solving problems or really what it is. I just notice that there's a high concentration of creative people."

The problem, Lagergren said, is that Kansas inventors think there's nowhere to take their ideas: "They die with the idea or see it five or six years down the road and think, 'That's the idea I had.'"

That's where Lagergren comes in -- rounding up investors, getting prototypes manufactured, seeking out manufacturers.

"I more or less take the project from somebody's mind and take it to putting it on the shelf," he said. "It's not just finding investors, it's basically ramrodding the project."

But not every project makes Lagergren's cut.

For one, he doesn't want to spread himself too thin.

"When I take on a project, I put everything into it," he said. "I can only do that with so many projects at a time."

Number two, the idea has to represent not just an improvement, but a new concept.

"What I try to do is find an industry that has been stagnant, that has basically sat for years without much change, and then try to go in and turn the industry upside down," he said.

Take the MudBuggy, for example. It's a self-contained system that not only mixes drywall compound, but also pumps it to an applicator. Attachments also let the operator make adjustments at the site of installation, rather than having to return to the pumping unit.

All that might sound fairly, well, dry. But Lagergren crackles with enthusiasm as he describes the benefits for drywallers: efficiency, ease of cleanup and -- most important, he says -- less wear and tear on their bodies.

"It's going to revolutionize the industry," Lagergren said. "That's the sort of thing I'm looking for."

And finally, Lagergren said, the inventor has to believe wholeheartedly in the invention.

"If I don't catch the passion with the person, then I totally walk away. I'm not going to do them any good," he said. "They can have a great idea, but I don't care if it's an idea worth millions of dollars -- if they don't have the passion or they're just in it for the money, then I know they're not going to make it."

But the enthusiasm must be tempered with patience, Lagergren said.

"There is a sense of urgency, when you're an entrepreneur, to get a project moved along," he said. "But you have to have that patience -- you can't always just shove things through."

The projects are at different stages now.

The MudBuggy is in limited production at Parsons, while its manufacturer, Renegade Tool, markets it.

The Kansas location of the plant is important to Lagergren, who gave up a 17-year career with Johnson and Johnson to return to Kansas from Texas. It's also important to Renegade president Danny Dillinger, who developed the MudBuggy.

"I'm a native Kansan just like Ralph," Dillinger said. "It's not that we're trying to isolate ourselves, it's that we're interested in building the Kansas economy. The more we can bring to Kansas, the better life we can build here."

Videocassettes of the first four episodes of "4 Fish Fly Free," filmed in Manhattan, are available for purchase on the Internet -- in both English and Spanish -- and plans are in the works for more than a dozen new episodes.

"We're close to 10 or 11,000 'Fin Club' members now," Lagergren said.

The series has already earned a number of awards, including recommendations from the Dove Foundation, Parent's Choice and the Coalition for Quality Children's Media.

And the Z-Writer is still in the developmental stages, with Lagergren pitching prototypes to everyone from corporate clients to office suppliers.

Lagergren's involvement with each project will end, eventually. His pay comes when an idea is sold, not from any long-term involvement with a company.

"I don't want to run a company," he said. "This is what I do. Once I finish this, I'll be looking for the next project, the next deal."

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