Hampton firm uses its hands-on experience to help others

By Cindy Gibbs

New Hampshire Business Review, November 28 – December 11, 2003

Reprinted with permission of the New Hampshire Business Review

One of the more difficult steps an entrepreneur faces is bringing a new product to market. First, a working prototype must be created, then start-up production and distribution resources must be found, and then eventually warehousing space must be located. For new business people, these steps can be daunting.

That’s where Cogent Products Inc. comes in.

Hampton-based Cogent offers product development services, from initial concept work through marketing and distribution. Like so many other businesses, there’s a story within the story.

Six months ago, David and Teryn Allen, owners of Cogent Products, were, operating Sweet Flours, a sucessful Hampton bakery, since 1995. They’d sometimes make 10 wedding cakes a weekend for weddings all over the Seacoast. Children came, and as their oldest son grew, the inevitable bicycle-riding lessons began.

As is often the case necessity is the mother of invention. Helping his son learn how to ride, Allen found himself awkwardly doubled over, guiding his son’s hike, mindful of the traffic on their busy street. Allen told himself there had to be another way. He created a makeshift device out of tent poles and attached it to the back of the bike. Now, the Allens could help their son maintain his balance as well as guide him safely through traffic and uneven ground, while keeping the push bar at a comfortable angle.

Soon, dozen of neighborhood parents began asking where they could purchase the device. It was then that the Allens began researching the possibility selling the push bar to a mass market.

As more and more people began asking about the push bar and hearing about the Allens’ journey through product development, they, too, began inquiring how they could bring their own ideas to market.

In September, both the Helper’s Handle Push Bar and Cogent Products Inc. were born.

“Running a bakery really is like, product development on a daily basis,” said Allen. “You have to find the most feasible way to bring a product to market, in this case, wedding cakes, and do it economically. You have to come up with a concept, a cake design, and find sources for materials, as well as face storage and delivery issues, We just used our experience at Sweet Flours and applied it to different scenarios.”

When asked if it was difficult to give up the bakery and a career he had practiced since he was just 16 for something different, Allen answered: “Really, things just fell into place. When we sold Sweet Flours, we had our best month ever, so we were able to leave while on top. Our children are now 5 years and 16 months, and the long hours at the bakery and working weekends all the time were taking their toll. It was really time for a change.”

Not that the Allens’ new venture is much easier. All told, it took 14 months to create the Helper’s Bar and set the stage for Cogent Products.

“Many of the product development companies we talked to wanted us to contract for thousands of units at a price that was just cost-prohibitive,” Allen recalled.

Allen said he’s hoping to shorten that learning curve and lessen the initial investment for others with his product development company and targets Cogent Products for new, smaller and “perhaps undercapitalized” inventors.

“When a client comes to us with an idea, the first thing we do is fill out a mutual non-disclosure agreement. Your idea is yours, and we respect that,” said Allen.

He’ll then sit down with potential clients and talk about their idea, discuss possible markets for the invention, and find out how far along in the development they are and what kind of services they might require.

Allen said he will also conduct a preliminary patent search to see if a similar product is already in development, if the idea looks feasible, he and the client will come up with a proposal detailing the services required of Cogent Products and begin to move into the prototype phase.

“I didn’t need prototype manufacturing,” Allen explained, “because I was able to use ready-made extruded aluminum pipes, but someone else might need those services.” He said that, if he cannot make the prototype in-house, he has relationships with area machine shops that he can call on.

“We tell our clients to be realistic about their marketing potential,” said Allen. “If it’s only going to have a limited market to a few people in New England, they’re better off just making something themselves.”

Cogent, unlike many other product development companies, makes its money, from inventors purchasing from a menu of services rather than by taking a percentage of the new product’s sales.

And if someone does manage to build that better mousetrap, how far is Cogent Products able to go? Basically, our services would end when the product outgrows the physical capacity of the plant? But, he reiterates, there is quite a bit of space for warehousing.

Currently, Allen is working with economic development organizations to introduce them to his business. Allen also has four clients he’s working with. All are in the preliminary stages, so he could not disclose what the inventions were. He also has another bicycle safety product of his own in the works.

“A lot of what we do is not earth-shattering stuff, it’s just good stuff. But if you talk too much, somebody else will hear about it and will somehow get it to market faster.”