Adventure Capitalists

This inventor has been trying (and failing) to sell his $999 backpacks for 30 years

Most people don't walk nearly 3,000 miles across the United States to prove a point. But most people aren't as dogged as Melvin McCoy.

Struggling in the late '80s to convince others of the merits of the load-assisting backpack he had developed, McCoy decided to walk with it from Newport Beach, California, to Cape Henlopen, Delaware, in 1992 to prove it.

Today, McCoy is still trying to market his invention — the Multipurpose Uniaxial Litter Enginery, known as the M.U.L.E. McCoy appeared on the latest episode of CNBC's "Adventure Capitalists," a reality show in which entrepreneurs pitch their adventure products in the great outdoors.

McCoy, who was seeking an investment of $175,000 for 5 percent equity in his company, demonstrated his backpack to investors Craig Cooper, Dhani Jones, Jeremy Bloom and Susi Mai in Northern California's Hendy Woods State Park. Ultimately, however, they couldn't get past the price and the poor user experience, and he walked away empty-handed.

Melvin McCoy, founder and developer of the M.U.L.E., pitches his wheelable backpack to CNBC’s “Adventure Capitalists.” McCoy developed the product in the '80s after meeting a hiker who struggled to carry her belongings as she grew older.
Source: CNBC
Melvin McCoy, founder and developer of the M.U.L.E., pitches his wheelable backpack to CNBC’s “Adventure Capitalists.” McCoy developed the product in the '80s after meeting a hiker who struggled to carry her belongings as she grew older.

Like its namesake, the M.U.L.E was designed to minimize the human effort needed to cart and carry heavy loads. He initially came up with the concept when he was invited on a hike in Oregon.

"One of the ladies had hiked all her life, and she simply couldn't hike anymore. I thought, 'Well don't they have something to help you carry loads in the field?'" McCoy recalled.

McCoy believed the right device could help not only older people, but also forest firefighters, hikers, hunters, recreational backpackers and veterans returning from abroad.

With a wheel that enables the device to glide on the ground, an adjustable harness and a rigid frame to hold its user's belongings, McCoy claims the product can carry double the load of regular backpacks while minimizing the strain on the back. The product currently retails for $999.

McCoy has sold only 10. Efforts to raise money and awareness for the product, including various Kickstarter campaigns and a 500-mile walk from Tennessee to Washington, D.C., in 2015 to honor veterans (his brother served in Vietnam), have proved to be futile in gaining sufficient funding and interest in the product.

Guest co-host Susi Mai (face not visible), struggles to get over a tree stump while testing the M.U.L.E in Northern California’s Hendy Woods State Park.
Source: CNBC
Guest co-host Susi Mai (face not visible), struggles to get over a tree stump while testing the M.U.L.E in Northern California’s Hendy Woods State Park.

While McCoy claims the M.U.L.E can work on both even and uneven terrain, that did not appear to be the case when Cooper and Mai tested it in the mountains. Facing steep hills, rocky streams and trails dotted with tree trunks, the two found it cumbersome and unwieldy and had a tougher time hiking than did Jones and Bloom, who were carrying regular backpacks.

"What you do feel is every bump," said Cooper. "Mine is not sitting on my hip," added Mai.

At one point on the hike, Mai nearly tipped, unable to maneuver the M.U.L.E.'s wheel over a log on the path. Bloom had to come over and assist. "It actually made my hiking experience worse," Cooper later recollected during the group's negotiation with McCoy.

Beyond the poor user experience, the investors took issue with the fact that the M.U.L.E.'s patent expired in 1987 and that the product generally appeared to be stuck in that same decade. "This looks to me like somebody in the '80s would have been like 'wow, revolutionary.' It's just this version is not going to hit the marketplace today where people are looking for modern-looking things," Mai said.

The M.U.L.E is designed with an adjustable harness and a single wheel. It retails for $999.
Source: CNBC
The M.U.L.E is designed with an adjustable harness and a single wheel. It retails for $999.

Jones was the only one of the four investors who saw potential in the product, believing it would be better on flat, open roads. Still, he was only willing to offer $500 to buy the product in order to test it out further on his own and then later come to an investment decision — an offer McCoy scoffed at.

The meeting with the "Adventure Capitalists" ended awkwardly, with McCoy shaking hands with the would-be investors but appearing perturbed and misunderstood. "He didn't need to rescue me or anything like that, and $500 — there's places he can stick that," McCoy said.

"As an entrepreneur, one of the hardest things to do is realize when something actually is not working," said Cooper. That lesson can be even harder after 30 years of tireless effort.

CNBC's "Adventure Capitalists" airs Mondays at 10 p.m. EDT.