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A successful, prolific inventor reveals how not to create a new product

Wednesday, Apr 11 2001
Maurice Kanbar -- multimillionaire, film buff, scooter rider, owner of 32 patents, inventor of (among other things) the D-Fuzz-It sweater comb, the ROLLOcane, Skyy Vodka, 80/20 Cola, a game called Tangoes, and one of the world's first multiplex movie theaters -- calls South San Francisco at least once a day. That's where his personal laboratory is. Tucked in the back of a nondescript industrial park, Rex Products Inc. is a 10,000-square-foot shrine to whatever ideas pop into Kanbar's head, and the main warehouse has a Radio-Shack-meets-Home-Depot feeling of controlled chaos. The place is filled with prototypes, lathes, saws, drills, and drawers packed with valves and wires and moldings and all sorts of things that might, someday, result in a useful and profitable invention.

When Kanbar calls, he usually speaks to Albert Kolvites, a tall, bespectacled man with salt-and-pepper hair. Like Kanbar, he has a boundless enthusiasm about the stuff that makes up the world. The two met 25 years ago in a New Jersey lab where Kolvites worked at the time. Kanbar moved Albert and his wife, Florence, to the Bay Area four years ago to work for him full time. The couple, along with industrial designer Wayne Bish, make up the entire staff of Rex Products, which juggles dozens of projects simultaneously. This week they're retooling a brand of Indian motor scooters that Kanbar wants to sell in the U.S. Next week it'll be something else -- like the more efficient LED stoplight that Kanbar claims uses a tenth of the energy today's stoplights do, or the Wagel, a whole-wheat, nonfat breakfast bread.

On the wall of the laboratory's office is a poster of three men whom Kanbar and Kolvites refer to as the gods: Walter Brattain, William Shockley, and John Bardeen, the Nobel Prize-winning scientists who invented the transistor in 1947. The Bell Labs Three are sanctified because they not only invented something the whole world uses, they investigated, researched, and slaved over prototype after prototype. But Kanbar will tell you that even the most meticulous research can still result in failure. And that passion can be enough to bring a product to market, but not enough to keep it there. That passion created 80/20 Cola, a soft drink that Kanbar launched last year -- and that failed almost immediately. He still likes it, and he still believes in it -- indeed, he keeps a few cases around the offices of Rex Products for when he drops by, as he did on a recent lunch visit with his staffers. But eventually the aspartame will degrade, the 80/20 Cola will become flat and undrinkable, and the cans will be useful only to exemplify how Maurice Kanbar's mind works -- and what goes right and wrong when you choose to be an inventor.

"The real problem is I didn't do my homework," Kanbar explains, holding up a can of 80/20 Cola. "What do you have to know?"

And the staff answers, in unison, as if they've been asked this question before: "Everything."

There's a difference between inventors like Maurice Kanbar and most people. And here it is: When most people go to a fast-food joint, they get a burger, fries, and a Coke. When Kanbar goes, he gets an epiphany.

Kanbar, who gives his age as "50-plus" (though most everyone agrees he's well into the retirement-age side of that number), is on a reduced-sugar diet. So he had to be careful when he made a fateful trip to Burger King two years ago. With a chicken sandwich and an empty cup on his plastic tray, he went to the do-it-yourself soda fountain, considered the options before him, and performed an experiment. Disgusted by the artificial-sweetener taste of diet colas, Kanbar worked out a compromise: He filled the cup with a little bit of regular cola and topped it off with diet cola -- roughly 20 percent regular and 80 percent diet. Problem solved. "I said, "You know, this really tastes like the real thing,'" he recalls. "So I started buying regular cola and diet cola and mixing it."

That, of course, created a needlessly messy situation in Kanbar's Pacific Heights home, which got Kanbar to thinking of perhaps mass-producing cans of his cola mixture. So he invoked one of his guiding philosophies as an inventor: "Would I buy it if it were available?"

In the same way that Joseph Heller wrote Catch-22 because he couldn't find a book he wanted to read, many of the things Kanbar invents and invests in are items that he wants himself; it's why he's interested in making a light, versatile work vest to keep his pens and papers and plane tickets in (like his 11-pocket Vee Vest, available soon) but not, say, a better gun. An interest in removing those unsightly "pills" from his sweaters resulted in his first patent, the D-Fuzz-It sweater comb. A hangover spurred him to invent his most successful creation -- Skyy Vodka, which claims to contain fewer headache-inducing impurities. A passion for scooters made him want to license an Indian scooter brand, Bajaj, for sale in the U.S.

Ideas like these, and the success they bring, have helped give Kanbar a Horatio Alger-type reputation. He's the man who broke out of a lower-middle-class Brooklyn childhood to do what everybody said he couldn't: become a wealthy inventor and serial entrepreneur. He's the man who dreamed of becoming a filmmaker but whose father -- a failed businessman -- would have slapped him upside the head if he'd ever followed through. He's the man who studied engineering instead, but whose father wouldn't loan him the thousand dollars he needed to make a prototype of the D-Fuzz-It. He's the man whose mind is so flexible, he understands the nature of what people need in the world -- and what they don't, even if he sometimes fails on the path to that understanding.

"Look at this cup," Kanbar says, picking up a coffee cup in his office at Skyy's corporate headquarters. He leans forward on his sofa and points hard at the glass cup. "Can you make a coffee cup handle that's more comfortable, or more efficient, or something? You may not find it. I go through 50 things that I will spend more than an hour on to find one that's worth pursuing; and out of that, one out of a hundred will become a reality. So I just have a great time with my head, playing around with ideas. It's a way to keep from being bored."

About The Author

Mark Athitakis


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