Inside Design: Passing the Torch in Search of new Opportunities
After 30 years in business, Spark Innovations still finds new ways to shine.
After a successful career as president of Northern Technologies, a division of Lanpar Technologies, Robert Dickie was looking for a new adventure. In 1988, he decided to strike out on his own and create a product design firm, Spark Innovations. From the start, Sparks’ philosophy was to pursue opportunities “in little, high-volume things where we can innovate and patent.”
Fast forward 30 years and Dickie is passing the torch to Chris Pearen, President and Design Director, and Gary Vilinsky, CFO and Director of Business Development.
What are your histories with the company?
Pearen: My background is in industrial design but I’ve spent the majority of my career focused more on the manufacturing side of product development. And that’s [Spark’s] niche: Product development for manufacturing. I’ve been with the company now going on four years, but Gary and I are now focused on getting our feet wet with running the business.
Vilinsky: I’ve been with the company for 14 years. With Robert [the owner] semi-retired, we are progressing to the full day-to-day operations. We have a five-year plan in place that we are looking at rolling out, which provides manageable growth year over year.
How would you sum up Spark Innovations?
Vilinsky: Our studio, located in King City, ON, currently employs six people – a mix of both industrial designers and mechanical engineers. As a company, we are pretty broad in terms of the industries we serve. We can work on anything from toys to medical, general consumer products to soft goods. It all depends on the product, client and where they want to go and what they want to do.
When individuals, start-ups or corporations bring us their idea, we turn around a plan to bring that idea to fruition. What makes us unique is that we offer a studio that includes both industrial design and mechanical engineers working together. On top of that, we have extensive experience in both manufacturing and patents.
Pearen: That’s where Spark really shines. We have worked on over 250 issued patents, providing for a very strong understanding of patents and how to work towards a utility patent or work within the confines of existing patents to find the freedom to operate.
What’s the “sweet spot” for Spark Innovation?
Pearen: One thing we are very good at is preparing the mechanical and enclosure components for a project. If you have a very mechanical project, something that you need to figure out a function or movement, we are very strong at those kinds of projects – even so far as to develop testing equipment.
On the enclosure side, we have a lot of experience with injection molding and plastic/metal fabrication. For example, if clients have already developed the electronics or a mechanism and need an enclosure, they can come to us for industrial design and/or product development and we can take it to the next level of production.
We can consider things like seals and gaskets, snaps and minutia. It makes a huge difference between what you can do with a 3D printer to what a product looks like after production, to ensure you end up with a perfect finished product.
Vilinsky: We also have a number of individual start-ups and corporations that bring ideas to us and we take them all the way to commercialization. We recently developed the Indigo shopping cart, which was one big project for us.
What is your firm’s design process?
Pearen: In general, we break our projects into three phases, starting with the creative phase.
We start with a very broad approach to the concepts, potentially starting with some hand illustrations, sketches and 3D illustrations. We work with the client to determine their likes and wants and then refine and tune the concept. At the end of phase one, the goal is to have an agreed upon direction for the concept to move forward.
In the engineering phase, things can be very broad depending on the materials and processes that are intended for the project. There could be more testing and research, depending on what the client is looking for and what the budget is. At the end of phase 2, we would end up with a production or prototype package with files ready for quoting by the manufacturer.
Phase 3 is building the prototype, setting up manufacturing and securing patents and intellectual property.
Last year, we did over 100 projects, which can be a little deceiving. Some projects can be quick, if we are just in the patent side of the project. For others, we take the concept right through to production.
Vilinsky: We’ve developed many products for many different corporations, start-ups and individuals, including products that were taken into Dragons’ Den, sold on the internet and in retail stores.
Is there a project you are particularly proud of?
Pearen: Our real expertise came into play with a start-up called BrushPoint Innovations that designs electric toothbrushes. The company became the fourth largest toothbrush distributor in North America and was subsequently sold to it’s biggest rival in store-brand oral care products.
Their team did the industrial design, patented every toothbrush and delivered the patent drawings. Our team 3D printed the prototypes to make sure the motors and all the mechanical parts fit perfectly. Beyond that, we also created functioning prototypes and renderings for marketing, presentations and pitches to retail stores and wholesalers. Packaging was another area we managed.
What’s next for Spark Innovation?
Pearen: The work we do on patents and the blending of skills is interesting and growing. We also work well with mid-sized companies that have existing product lines they are looking to add to, update or explore a different avenue with. We can look at the entire project or we can be one small part, a resource to get over a hurdle. At this point, Gary [Vilinsky] and I are looking to grow the company at a comfortable rate.DE