APEX, N.C. — Every day, Steven Walther looks for signs that he has re-invented the toothbrush.
One of those signs, Walther said, occurred about a year ago when his Toof-inger Brush, designed to be held by two fingers, made its debut at an N.C. Dental Society meeting in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
A dentist in his 70s approached Walther's modest booth, which was decorated with a single hand-colored poster that showed the gum lines and teeth enamel people could save by holding their brush with two fingers instead of a fist.
Walther handed the dentist the short brush.
"(The dentist) said, 'Son, you have just re-invented the mousetrap,' " Walther said.
Walther has seen other positive signs, including a joint venture in which his product would land in national beauty products chain Sephora. Still, his business is based in a garage in his Apex subdivision as he works his way through a capital barrier to entry that has held back many inventors.
The rewards from new product development can be big, but so are the risks, said Fred Gebarowski, director of the Small Business Center at Wake Technical Community College.
Entrepreneurs have to fight expensive and competitive battles for shelf space or build demand for direct sales.
That is why it is so important for inventors to test their concept and product before investing thousands of dollars in their idea, he said.
Inventors need to market test their idea to determine whether there is interest in the product and at what price. The process should include nondisclosure and noncompete agreements.
"Not that it would keep someone from stealing your idea if they wanted to," Gebarowski said. "But at least it slows them down a little bit."
Walther came up with the idea for the Toof-inger Brush while serving as a Green Beret in Afghanistan.
He spent nearly a year on two overseas deployments in 2009 and 2010. Part of his responsibilities included providing health care for the local population.
At clinics, Walther performed a lot of tooth extractions, he said, and showed many people how to clean their teeth. When Walther demonstrated holding a toothbrush with a fist, his students would grip the brush with white knuckles.
"It was like they were taking wire brush to concrete," he said.
When he taught them to pinch the brush between their index finger and thumb, they brushed much more gently.
"The light bulb went off," Walther said.
In summer 2011, Walther was back in Apex finishing his active duty when he ran the idea by a dentist friend.
"Her eyes got big," he said. She told him to file a patent application right away.
Walther started researching what would be his second attempt to take an idea to the market.
In fall 2008, Walther created an extendable clothes hanger from PVC pipes. The goal was to prevent dimples from forming on the shoulders of shirts and sweaters because of the weight of the sleeves.
He turned to a promotions company that advertised on television. The company sent him a hanger that had many pieces. Walther wanted a simpler design, but was told it would cost more. After working with the company for about two years and investing about $10,000, Walther walked away from the idea.
Six months later, he saw a product very similar to his being sold by someone else in a national catalog, he said.
This time, Walther said, he took a different route. His goal was to test the market and spend the least amount of money possible.
"You never want to get so far ahead of yourself," he said, that you can't recover if it doesn't work out.
One of the biggest pitfalls in product development is being unable to obtain the capital needed to launch an idea, said Allen Moore, owner of TouchStone 3D Services, a Cary company that helps inventors design and develop parts and prototypes.
Everybody thinks their idea is so good that people will start lining up to write a check.
"That is almost never the case," Moore said.
The less than 10 percent of inventors who succeed in bringing their products to market tend to spend more time developing their customer base and sales and distribution strategies up front, he said. They line up orders. They take prototypes to trade shows.
Investors, Moore said, more often are interested in the person not the product.
In early 2013, Walther filed a provisional application for a patent through an online legal document service to protect his idea.
He created three models of his brush, one of which had a short handle with ergonomic curves.
He took the models to TouchStone 3D Services and spent about $5,000 to print about eight Toof-inger prototypes.
He reached out to toothbrush manufacturers so he'd be ready in case he began getting orders.
"I just Googled toothbrush manufacturers and started picking up the phone and calling people," he said.
Walther eventually signed on with a Wisconsin manufacturer.
In May 2013, Walther displayed the Toof-inger at the N.C. Dental Society Meeting in Myrtle Beach. Dentists there loved his story and product, Walther said.
Since then, Walther left his full-time job and has sold tens of thousands of brushes, mainly to dentists offices and distributors of related products.
His typical 70-hour work week includes visiting dentist offices across North Carolina's Research Triangle region, attending trade shows and setting up meetings with decision makers at retail companies.
In January, Walther met with GLO Science, makers of high-end teeth whitening systems and products. The company wants to include his brush in a product package that is expected to be sold at Sephora stores this summer.
Walther sees it as yet another sign that he should continue investing in himself.
Hopefully, "I can move out of the garage soon," he said.