Inventor of a Smart Air Conditioner Will Get a Cool Half Million

4 minute read

For an idea that he dreamed up in his spare time, 63-year-old Garthen Leslie accepted a $100,000 check last week from Ben Kaufman, the 27-year-old CEO of Quirky. It’s the first of at least 5 checks of that size that the self-employed IT consultant is likely to receive this year from Quirky.

The five-year-old New York City manufacturing company is on a mission to “bring real people’s product ideas to life.” Leslie’s idea—one of many that the self-confessed tinkerer with a PhD has pitched to Quirky—is a smartphone-controlled window-unit air conditioner that learns users’ habits in order to conserve energy and cut costs while keeping them cool.

Leslie had been ruminating on his “smart air conditioner” since summer 2012. That’s when, driving from his Columbia, Md., home into Washington, he was struck by all of the cooling units hanging out of old apartment building windows. Having spent several years of his career at the U.S. Department of Energy, Leslie naturally wondered about the cost to operate them all day.

He recalls, “I realized the people who lived there had two options: Leave the air conditioner running when they’re out, adding up expenses and energy consumption, or shut it off and come home to a hot and sticky home.” A smartphone married with a new type of air conditioner could provide more flexibility, he thought: You could reduce cooling costs by turning on the air conditioner with your phone as you were leaving work and arrive home to a comfortable room.

But Leslie didn’t have the wherewithal to take his invention any further, so it remained just a pipedream on paper for six months. Then, one night in January 2013, as he was falling asleep in front of the TV, he caught Jay Leno interviewing Ben Kaufman about Quirky’s business model.

When Kaufman described how his company “bridges the gap between great ideas and real products” by developing and compensating concepts contributed by regular people, Leslie perked up. “I had defined a great idea as well as I could, but I was stuck on all this other stuff that needs to happen for it to become a product,” he says. He sleepily jotted down the Quirky URL.

A few days later Leslie created an online profile and submitted not just the air conditioner—described in two paragraphs with a crude diagram—but also another 20 or so of his inventions that had been languishing in an inches-thick file on his desk.

As luck would have it, Quirky shortly entered a partnership with GE to develop Internet-connected home appliances and devices. After the release of the first four Quirky + GE products in November, a GE partner asked Kaufman if any of his community’s inventors had submitted air conditioner ideas. From the Quirky digital archive, where the company stores the 4,000 or more product concepts it receives each week, Kaufman pulled up Leslie’s idea.

GE’s team liked it, so Quirky’s in-house design and engineering team went into high gear that December developing the smart AC. More than 2,000 members of the online invention community chimed in on sizing, specs, and the product name. At home, Leslie watched on the website as his idea joined the hundreds that had been flagged for development.

In March, Kaufman asked Leslie to take the train up to New York to visit Quirky headquarters—a sprawling 30,000-square-foot “imaginarium” for hundreds of young designers and engineers on the 7th floor of an old brick warehouse on Manhattan’s west side—to take a look at their work on his idea. When Leslie’s wife asked him what he thought he would see there, he answered, “Probably some detailed sketches or a maybe a cardboard mockup,” he recalls.

So it was an emotional moment when Leslie walked into Quirky’s meeting hall, assuming he was interrupting an event among the 200 people gathered there, to witness the unveiling of his own idea brought to life: the finished and operational 8,000 BTU Aros.

“Ben was there with the actual working product. That really blew me away. That’s a very short time frame to do almost anything,” Leslie says. “I went back to the hotel, and I just sat there trying to get my head around what had just happened. I called my wife and she didn’t believe it.”

The Quirky + GE branded Aros will be available this summer in Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Best Buy, P.C. Richard & Son, and Target. For now, the $300 smart air conditioner can be pre-ordered on Amazon, where more than $5 million in sales have already been rung up.

Quirky gives 10 percent of bottom-line product revenues to the community that influenced its creations. As the inventor, with an “influencer status” of better than 40, Leslie is entitled to at least 40 percent of that share, or 4 percent of total revenues. Quirky spokeswoman Tiffany Markofsky says she has little doubt he will be a millionaire in short time, and notes that he won’t be Quirky’s first.

Though Leslie won’t soon forget the moment he first saw his idea realized, the next milestone he looks forward to is when his sister, who works at a Wal-Mart in Huntsville, Ala., will see stacks of boxed Aros in her store, branded with the beaming smile of its inventor, thumb up in a Hawaiian shirt, sunglasses, shorts, flip flops, a scarf, and a fur hat.

That half a million dollars in paychecks Leslie will collect this year? Icing on the cake.