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10 unknown inventors who turned little ideas into big cash

Chris Morris, special to CNBC.com
Brian Jackson | Getty Images

Most of us, at some point, have what we're certain is a million-dollar idea, but generally we keep it to ourselves. Most people simply aren't willing to risk their livelihood on something that just flittered into their head.

Enter Quirky.com. Sifting through thousands of user-submitted ideas, the site's staff picked the best—and leveraged the community to polish and improve those concepts. From there, Quirky arranged for manufacturing and sale, splitting the income with both the inventor and the community that helped polish it.

On Thursday, Quirky CEO Ben Kaufman said at a tech conference that the crowdsourced inventing site is running out of money—"running on fumes," Kaufman said specifically. Quirky is now more focused on partnerships with large companies rather than its direct production of a large number of inventor-submitted ideas.

So it's a good time to take a lot at what worked on Quirky—if not the startup's business plan itself, which included close to $200 million in venture capital investment. Whatever the inventing site's fate from here, Quirky inventors have made some significant sums of money on the site, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Here's a look at Quirky's top-selling products, as judged by income paid out to the inventors, as of July 17.

By Chris Morris, special to CNBC.com
Posted 17 July 2015

Aros

Source: Quirky

Garthen Leslie may have a stint at the Department of Energy on his résumé, but it wasn't until he noticed window units hanging out of apartment building windows that inspiration hit. Aros is a smart air conditioner—one that doesn't run needlessly when you're not home. It can be controlled from your smartphone and learns your habits, knowing when you typically leave and return to your home.

Units sold: 1,762
Inventor earnings: $360,903

Cordies

Source: Quirky

With so many devices that need to be charged on a daily basis, keeping the cords in order can be challenging. Growing tired of constantly fumbling with them, Stephen Stewart came up with Cordies, a paperweight for cables that keeps them in a consistent location and helps to cut down on desktop clutter.

Units sold: 521,750
Inventor earnings: $360,367

Wrapster

Source: Quirky

Earbuds all too often end up a tangled mess when you keep them in your pocket. So clinical psychologist Matthew Fleming developed a headphone cord organizer called Wrapster that prevents this technological spaghetti and makes daily life just a little bit easier.

Units sold: 537,064
Inventor earnings: $175,085

Pivot Power

Source: Quirky

While the numbers for Jake Zien's flexible surge-protecting power strip aren't bad, they're more impressive when you add in the nine sister products Pivot Power has spawned.

There are versions for desktop devices, Christmas trees, for workshops and so on, each bending into circular, semicircular and zigzag shapes to fit around furniture and in tight spaces. Zien first imagined the design in high school and submitted it to Quirky three years ago after reading about the site in an in-flight magazine. All totaled, the Pivot Power family has sold over 8,500 units and earned Zien more than $137,000.

Units sold: 2,874*
Inventor earnings: $30,185*

(*Figures are for the original Pivot Power model and excludes additional Pivot Power family products.)

Nimbus

Source: Quirky

Initially, Ryan Pendleton just wanted to build an app-enabled alarm clock, but Nimbus grew into something much more advanced before it went up for sale. The customizable smart dashboard gives people a single place to view information streams that don't normally go together, such as traffic, weather, email and social media networks. Nimbus works in conjunction with your smartphone to track the information.

Units sold: 1,794
Inventor earnings: $48,991

Space Bar

Source: Quirky

High school teacher Michael Cavada needed some way to protect the keyboards of the Mac computers in his classroom—and he wanted the room to always look tidy. So he came up with Space Bar, a riser for monitors, under which users can stow their keyboards when they are through with the day. The aluminum device is small but durable (it can support up to 30 pounds) and also houses extra USB ports for the system.

Units sold: 7,510
Inventor earnings: $47,669

Crates

Source: Quirky

Milk crates used to be a common sight in college dorms, but they've been harder and harder to find in recent years. Designer Jenny Drinkard is bringing the old standard back, but with a modern twist: Users can add legs, wheels or drawers to the Crates storage units, which are a mix of retro chic and modern design.

Units sold: 183,040
Inventor earnings: $45,556

Stem

Source: Quirky

After stints as a bartender, zookeeper and lifeguard, Tim Houle became an inventor. While working at a Mexican restaurant, he found that lime juice greatly enhanced the taste of tortilla chips but was frustrated at how much got wasted by just squeezing the lime. Stem lets you avoid cutting or juicing the fruit of your choice. Just stick the nozzle into the fruit and spray and you'll quickly have fresh aerosoled juice to spritz up whatever food you'd like.

Units sold: 157,829
Inventor earnings: $45,195

Verseur

Source: Quirky

Angelo Cacchione works in the catering business, where it's good to know where all your wine utensils are at all times. Following in the footsteps of his two grandfathers, who were both inventors, he came up with Verseur, a four-in-one tool that includes a wine opener, foil cutter, pour spout and stopper.

Units sold: 54,888
Inventor earnings: $40,618

Porkfolio

Source: Quirky

There are plenty of 'smart' devices to help you spend money, but this one helps you save it. Created by Navy veteran Jason Huber as a tool to encourage his daughter to save her money, Porkfolio, a smart piggybank, syncs with the Wink app to let you know how much you've put aside—and can hold up to $100 in quarters. And every time you put a coin into it, the nose lights up in celebration.

Units sold: 4,911
Inventor earnings: $40,180