The Inventist life - A look at the creations of a Chinese 'tinkerer'
57-year-old Shane Chen lives a life of vivid invention, constructing tools like the Solowheel
Shane Chen is an inventor.
Or to use his own words, he is a “tinkerer” – a fellow who makes a living from molding mechanisms into a multitude of quirky creations, including a watercraft powered by jumps and a kitchen device specifically designed to keep beverages carbonated.
“Growing up in China, I was always a tinkerer,” says the 57-year-old Chen. “During the Cultural Revolution, my father encouraged and supported me to work with electronics by giving me money whenever he could to buy parts.”
Chen’s earliest inventions included a television for his countryside commune and a remote controlled irrigation system for farmers.
Eventually, the budding creator received a degree in agricultural meteorology at the Beijing-based China Agricultural University before moving to the United States in 1986 with only a paltry US$200 in his pocket.
After a stint as a product designer, Chen founded CID Bio-Science, a company specialising in agricultural research products – an industry that Chen eventually found suffocating.
“The limited field of customers and limited invention potential led me to invent my first general consumer product, the Aqua Skipper,” Chen says, referring to a flotation device solely powered by jumping motions.
The Aqua Skipper opened the floodgates to a flurry of over 37 different inventions, including the Body Toner (a body sculpting workout device made from rubber tubing), the Orbit Wheels (a new take on roller skates that encases the rider’s feet in the middle of two hollow orbiting wheels) and of course, the aforementioned Fizzsaver (meant to keep your Coca Cola, well, fizzy).
These products were originally only meant to be niche amusements, but their mass market potential inspired Chen to form another company, dubbed Inventist.
In 2009, Chen sold CID Bio-Science for US$2 million, and today, as a resident of the quiet city Camas in Washington state, the tinkerer devotes his full time to Inventist projects.
Chen’s latest and most popular work is the Solowheel, a transportation device that resembles a Segway minus the handle. Outfitted with an automatic balancing system that keeps the rider stable, the Solowheel was inspired partly by Chen’s environmental concerns and his agricultural studies in China.
Watch: Solowheel Promotional Video
“People have to commute, whether it’s to work, shopping or to see family,” Chen says. “I own a 100 per cent electric car. I was looking for other means of 100 per cent electrical transportation [and while] there are electric bikes on the market, they are big and usually heavy… I wanted to invent something for human transportation that would be portable, environmentally friendly and valuable to various…types of commuters.”
A speed skating hobby and an interest in unicycles also helped Chen develop the gryo stabilisation technology that powers the Solowheel, which is controlled by one’s feet rather than hips.
“I had seen a few different types of unicycles over the years, but I could never learn to use one,” Chen muses. “So [when I was developing the Solowheel], I had…to come up with [a way] to balance left and right…
“When you skate in a straight line on one foot, you can see your feet steer right and left to balance your body. [With the Solowheel], your feet are low to the ground, your legs rest against the pads [and] your lower body acts as one unit, like skating on one skate… Using your feet to steer and balance is much easier than using the hip, which is what all other unicycles draw on.”
These design deliberations paid off, and while Chen’s product might still be far from a mainstream mode of travel, Inventist made US$1.7 million in revenue in 2012 – most of which was generated by Solowheel sales. Currently, over 1,600 Solowheels have been sold worldwide, and the theatrical troupe Cirque du Soleil even featured the device in one of its recent Las Vegas shows.
The Solowheel’s success has opened Chen up to the realities of business, and the inventor is currently looking for strategists to help him plot out Inventist’s future. And once the company's long-term goals are finalised, then work must be done on Chen's latest project - another auto-balancing transportation device called the Holotrax.
“What drives me to invent?” Chen asks. “[Usually] I perceive a need, or see a product that could be better. Or sometimes it’s just daydreaming, thinking ‘wouldn’t it be neat if...’ Then I fill in the blank with something new.”
The tinkerer tinkers on.