Apr 212011
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Plenty of people want to build a popular Web site and become the next Mark Zuckerberg. But some technology entrepreneurs have a more old-fashioned goal: they want to make something you can hold in your hand.

Like, actual stuff.

This can be risky territory, since making a physical product often requires a big upfront investment, and the smallest setback can wipe out profits. But inventors are getting around the hurdles — in part by using the Web to find backers and buyers.

They are also thinking small, as in smaller products and accessories that require less capital and are relatively easy to make and distribute.

Dave Petrillo and David Jackson, for example, friends and mechanical engineers from Pennington, N.J., had an idea for bean-shaped steel shells that go into a cup of coffee and quickly cool it to a drinkable temperature, then keep it warm longer. The shells contain a heat-absorbing gel.

The two men spent nine months fine-tuning the design for the beans, which they called Coffee Joulies. Then they scraped together $3,000 and built 100 prototypes by hand in Mr. Petrillo’s parents’ basement.

Making the first batch “was harder than we originally thought,” Mr. Petrillo said, so they began hunting for a way to speed the process. They found one in an unlikely place: a video clip on YouTubefeaturing a silverware factory in upstate New York. Making the handles of knives turned out to be similar to making Joulies.

Then, like a growing number of other inventors and designers in need of capital, the men turned to Kickstarter, a start-up in New York that lets people present a sales pitch for a creative project and ask others to put cash behind it. This allowed them to gauge the appeal of the project before sinking a lot of time and money into it.

“We thought about investors and design competitions, but when we saw Kickstarter we decided to go for it,” Mr. Petrillo said. They created a three-minute video to demonstrate their product and said that anyone who gave them $40 would get five Coffee Joulies. They hoped to raise $9,500, but within a few weeks they have raised $177,000, and the total is still rising.

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