Most entrepreneur-inventors believe in an idea, but not many are willing to spend 16 years working on proving its worth at the risk of losing everything.
For retired South Carolina firefighter Ken Blocker, who had poured nearly $100,000 of his own savings into his hands-free fire hose contraption — to the point where he and his wife lost their home — the struggle finally paid off.
His invention, dubbed the Aqua Blaster, secured a $1 million investment from DreamFunded CEO Manny Fernandez at a valuation of just over $3 million in the premiere episode of CNBC's "Make Me a Millionaire Inventor."
Meant to prevent injury and reduce the amount of firefighters needed to operate a firehose, Blocker's hose-bracing Aqua Blaster impressed Fernandez's investment advisor, retired Sacramento Fire Chief Julius Cherry.
"Every fire engine in the country or ladder truck has a thermal imaging camera — some two or three, " Cherry said. "But this can take off the way the thermal imaging camera did."
Nevetta Blocker, Ken's wife and CFO of the company, agreed, projecting $10 million in first-year sales considering the Aqua Blaster's $1,500 price point and nearly 70,000 pumpers in use across the more than 58,000 fire stations in the U.S., recorded by the National Fire Protection Association.
"When I started this thing I was as dumb as a box of rocks. I was just a guy that believed I had a great idea," Blocker said. "I was so gung-ho that I carelessly made some decisions and other people had to suffer because of that," adding that the stresses of developing the Aqua Blaster led to separating from his wife for three months.
Among the other regrets over the 16 years he spent working on the product were spending blindly on production runs and the decision to hire a consulting firm, which cost the Blockers $25,000 but ultimately left the couple little to show for it. However, help from Bluefish Concepts, a prototyping and design firm that also helps inventors on the show, allowed the Aqua Blaster to become much lighter and more adjustable, and added an emergency release function in its final pre-pitch iteration.
During the pitch, investor Manny Fernandez was impressed by the Blockers' conviction. "You're one of the small percentage of people that would follow through with an idea for 16 years, so I commend you," he said.
Now, the Blockers find themselves in an even more elite percentage: inventors who have the backing to prove their struggle was worth it.