For a design student from South Korea trying to forge a career in London with limited funds or fluency in English, Min-Kyu Choi is doing rather well. Last month, the 30-year-old made headlines around the world when he won the most prestigious award in design. The brilliance of Choi's folding plug prototype was its "why on earth hasn't anyone done that before" simplicity. Irked by the ads for Apple's MacBook Air, in which the ultra-slim laptop was shown slipping inside a manila envelope, Choi suggested the clunky British three-pin plug made that vision of portability impossible. So he started sketching, eventually coming up with a solution of rotating pins and folding flaps that allows his plug to shrink to a thickness of less than a centimetre.
It's early days for Choi but if he makes a success of his plug, he'll join an exciting new generation of enterprising entrepreneurs. Once the preserve of multinational corporations with bottomless research and development budgets and armies of white-coated tech heads, the gadget world is now being infiltrated by upstarts with start-ups going it alone and finding new and increasingly innovative ways to get their gadgets on to our shelves and into our hands.
Will Aspinall isn't a designer at all – he's a film producer – but four years ago he had a dream. Except that he didn't because he couldn't sleep. "I was really stressed and to try and help me nod off I started devising a space station in my head," he says. "It was a vast spiral shape and gradually I scaled it down until I thought of it more as a rotating sculpture. The magic moment came when I made the connection with time and wondered if my spiral could be a clock." Certain that his slightly mad idea represented a new way to tell time, Aspinall set the clock ticking on his new invention. He knocked up a rough prototype in MDF and gaffer tape to prove his clock would work. A long ledge curled into a spiral and stuck to a turning clock face would carry a marble towards a hole at the centre of the clock face. At 12 o'clock, the ball falls through the hole and starts a new day at the bottom. Satisfied, Aspinall joined forces with an engineer friend, Neil Lambeth, to launch Aspiral Clocks in October 2009.
Aspiral has now taken orders now for almost 100 hand-made clocks. Aspinall is in talks with a manufacturer to produce a smaller, mass-produced model and is selling five clocks at Paul Smith's Milan store next month. All this achieved by two guys with a good idea and some shed space. "It hasn't been easy but it's given me a real sense of positivity about anyone who wants to do this sort of thing," Aspinall says. "With a bit of capital and an off-the-shelf website, I think it's never been better a better time to have an interesting idea and run with it."
Jim Marggraff agrees – and he's been in the design game much longer than Aspinall. When the American engineer-turned-entrepreneur sold his communications company in 1996 for $4.5bn (yes, billion) he moved into educational toys. Dismayed by what he calls a lack of "geographic literacy" in America, he first invented the Odyssey Atlasphere, an interactive globe with a stylus. It caught the attention of a toy company called LeapFrog, where Marggraff developed a talking book called the LeapPad. He sold 30 million devices. Marggraff is now the brains behind LiveScribe, which automatically digitises notes taken on paper. He says he expects to sell hundreds of millions of his latest invention thanks partly to a transformation in the gadget scene. "What hasn't changed is that you need a good idea to start with and to find capital, which continues to be a challenge," he says. "But one of the big changes is the impact of social media and viral exposure. Where once you typically waited two or three years before launching in other countries, with LiveScribe, I rolled it out in Australia, Asia and Europe after just two months."
It's an effect Choi has seen even before he launches his plug. Last year, when he uploaded to YouTube a basic, three-minute clip showing his prototype and some 3D animation, it quickly got picked up by tech blogs, including Gizmodo, and went viral. It now has 380,000 views from around the world. As marketing the exposure was priceless yet cost Choi nothing. "I didn't realise that many people saw it because I'm not really good at numbers," he tells me.
The potential for the internet to create almost overnight a profile and a demand for a product is saving entrepreneurs big money but also, say some, making it easier for people like Choi, Aspinall and Marggraff, to hang on to their brainchilds while resisting the interests of bigger companies with chequebooks. Choi, who says he has had enquiries from several electronics giants, has teamed up with a friend with an MBA to create Made in Mind, a company he's using to get his plug launched. "It's always an entrepreneur's dilemma," says Marggraff. "There's a continual trade-off between opportunity and realising your vision. I think the reduced cost of exposure lets the entrepreneurs hold on to a company longer and gives smaller companies the ability to move and innovate more rapidly."
Sometimes, of course, the temptation can become too great. Jonathan Kaplan took just two years to build a powerful brand around his ingenious Flip digital video recorder. In March of 2009, Cisco Systems, the electronics and networking giant, bought Flip for $590m. Flip is the ultimate start-up to big-time success story but million-dollar buyouts aren't always what motivates a growing global community with radical ideas about how products should be developed. A bored Ben Kaufman was sitting in at the back of his maths class when inspiration struck. He wanted a device that would let him wear his headphones less conspicuously. He knocked up a prototype, got funding from his parents and launched the Song Sling, a retractable lanyard for the iPod, right after leaving school. It wasn't easy. "You have to figure out how to make it, how to sell it, how to get funding, getting the right people, the shipping, freight and logistics," he says. "There are so many barriers to entry into that world and it's no surprise people view product development as difficult."
Kaufman, who is now 23, saw another road. He now runs Quirky.com, a revolutionary online community that creates what he calls "socially-developed products". He explains: "We let people submit ideas, put them in front of a global community, which can influence, tweak and refine each idea until we launch it."
Quirky, which started in June 2009, unveils roughly one new product a week. Hits have so far included a toboggan with a headlight, a device to tidy USB cables and a case for the new iPad. "Each product comes from an initial spark that gets the community excited but thousands come together to complete it," Kaufman says.
"Influencers" then get a cut of the profits in line with their role in a product's development. "Usually if an inventor goes to a big company to licence and idea – and remember the odds of that happening are way out there – you might get four per cent on product sales if you're lucky," Kaufman says. "At Quirky it ends up being 12 per cent." Kaufman says the "old guard" in retail and manufacturing are intrigued and "calling us up asking how we can tap into this".
All of the above designers would sell a limb to achieve at least some of the success of Sir James Dyson, the vacuum cleaner magnate. But Dyson believes that, while some people are finding new ways to market, the recession as well as under-investment in innovation means this is by no means a golden age in entrepreneurialism. "When I started in 1993 we were also in the teeth of a recession and yet I managed to get a £600,000 bank loan," he says. "I'd been turned down by venture capitalists and so the loan was a complete lifeline but I'm not sure I'd get it today. I think the talent is there but Britain files 17,000 patents a year while America and Japan file 700,000 between them. The Philippines and Iran produce more engineers than we do and China has 20 times as many. We have this great history of individual hi-tech inventors but the funding isn't there."
Dyson has just published a report calling on the next government to improve education for would-be entrepreneurs and to significantly increase tax credits for start-ups in desperate need of a break. "The future doesn't look very bright unless we do something about it," he says.
If Dyson is successful, Made in Mind, which is waiting for the safety certificates for Choi's folding plug, may be among the first to benefit. "I will be very happy if my plug goes to a lot of homes," Choi says. "But I will be really pleased not because of my personal success but because I made something better – something that helps other people."
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies