Lessons from a $100,000 trash bucket

Magic Bucket -- Venture engineer Chase Sebor demonstrates the prototype for a touch-free garbage can that minimizes the spread of germs. Venture was left with the bucket after their client refused to pay a $100,000 bill.

THE WORKING STIFF — By Darren Garnick
The Boston Herald
March 17, 2010
If there ever is such a thing as a Museum of Mysterious Business Decisions, its curators would covet a $100,000 trash bucket that currently sits unappreciated in a Billerica office park. It was supposed to revolutionize the hospital and restaurant industries, offering the public a germ-free way to throw away their litter.  But for most of the engineers who now feed it napkins and paper cups, the novelty of an automated flap door wore off long ago.

The prototype industrial wastebasket has anchored the lunchroom of Venture Technologies for about 15 years. The product design and development company was originally approached by two Rhode Island inventors who wanted to mass market garbage cans that opened without having to touch the grimy doors. But they couldn’t get the mechanism to work right.

To make a deadline for a critical trade show, Venture offered to put most of its engineering team on the project full time in return for a commission on future sales or stock options. Venture solved the problem and produced 100 working trash buckets, but the inventors reneged on their promise to share a slice of the profits. Since nicknamed the “Two Jamokes from Rhode Island,” they opted instead to abandon their products in the warehouse and drop the business plan altogether.

“It’s easy to joke about it now,” says Venture CEO Don Miffitt, “but it wasn’t so funny back then.” The company got stiffed for $100,000 in billed labor, but fortunately was not left on the hook for the manufacturing.

Venture Vice President Chase Sepor, who still enjoys showing off the trash bin to new clients, says he is baffled each time he thinks about the “Jamokes’ decision” to walk away from the deal.

“This would have been a winner. We even had a soundchip that could deliver a combination of entertainment and advertising,” he says. “But it doesn’t tick me off when I see it. I’m more incredulous. Didn’t they realize we were going to make them rich?  I still laugh at it. I can’t imagine what they were thinking.”

Venture Technologies, which has 14 full-time employees and a network of 20 part-time software, hardware and mechanical design engineers, specializes in developing products that “analyze, measure, control, and communicate.”  Their wireless radio frequency chips are used by industrial plants to monitor the levels of liquid tanks and are currently being tested to track how often hospital employees use hand sanitizers.

Down the hallway from Venture’s one-of-a-kind garbage can is a demonstration room of commercially successful products made by companies willing to pay their bills. There’s a Home Depot shopping cart that flashes advertising in the handle, a much cheaper alternative to full computer screens. There’s also a high-tech glue gun for shoulder surgery, a training device for laparoscopic abdominal surgery, control panels for exercise equipment and a wireless behavioral modification shock device for dogs.

However, Venture is perhaps best known for the electronics inside BOP IT, the popular Hasbro party game that barks out a series of commands to press buttons, pull levers and twist handles. “We like to say there are 100 million products of ours out in the world, but 90 million of them are BOP ITs,” says Sebor.

“The diversity of our work makes this place is an engineer’s dream,” says Miffitt. “We don’t have any problems getting people to work here.”

As for getting clients to pay their bills, Sebor says that Venture hasn’t been stiffed since the trash bucket incident — and he’s not sure if there was any lesson to be learned.

“We didn’t make a foolish choice,” he insists. “It was a freak thing. They had a choice to go with us or go out of business and they chose to go out of business!”

The value of the dollar isn’t what it used to be, but it’s comforting to know that $100,000 will still buy a fantastic conversation piece. Somewhere buried in a Massachusetts warehouse, there are 99 more.

Darren Garnick’s “Working Stiff” column runs every Wednesday in the Herald. Send story tips and feedback to heraldstiff@gmail.com.

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