Gadget Nation author and “Innovation Insider” Steve Greenberg grew up in a family that celebrates invention — and a great meal.
So it’s only natural that Greenberg — who parlayed a gig as a TV reporter into a career heralding gadgets — would find a way to combine his passions and give inventors a boost to boot. This week, he and his pal, Patrick Raymond — founder of the Inventors Association of Manhattan and former Executive Director of the United Inventors Association — debuted their new Food Network series Invention Hunters, which follows the duo as they scout out potential million-dollar kitchen gizmos and try to make their creators’ dreams come true.
“It’s everything from the growing of food to the preparing to the consumption to the disposal,” Greenberg says. “Anything in the cycle of food is fair game for this show.”
A show that Greenberg says is really about following the American Dream, “You meet these people and they’re so tenacious and so excited about their invention,” he says. “I love inventors and I’ll do anything to support them because they really are making this country better,”
We recently spoke with Greenberg about his love of gadgets, his new show — and why his was the most well lit house in the neighborhood when he was boy.
Channel Guide Magazine: What a great job you have! When did you realize that you could parlay a love of inventions into a full-fledged career?
Steve Greenberg: I come from a gadget loving family and I’m a gadget-aholic myself. So years ago I had the weird opportunity of doing a feature on a show called Your New House. We had to come up with concept for it — but it was about home repair and I don’t do any of that stuff. So I said, “Let’s do ‘Check This Out!’— this was many, many years ago — and it was all gadgets. And I started hearing from all these garage inventors around the country saying, ‘Hey! Put my gadget on the segment! Put my gadget on the segment!’ I was meeting all these inventors at airports, everywhere, and I started learning about this world of garage inventors that I didn’t know about.
That’s when I came up with idea to write the book Gadget Nation — and I’ve been working with inventors and been a product scout ever since! So I started as a television news reporter, got into this feature thing, found gadgets and now I’m back in television again. It’s been such a nice circle for me.
CGM: This is some pretty new territory for food television as well — spotlighting the process of invention and the people behind the stuff in your kitchen.
SG: It’s absolutely following the American Dream, because we talk about America being a place of liberty and freedom — and I’m not taking that away because it really is — but it’s really about entrepreneurship. Coming up with the next great idea in whatever field and taking that to fame and fortune. I get so excited when I meet them because they’re so excited. It’s just a fun, fun area to be in.
And I also point out the fact that when an inventor invents a product, they’re not only inventing the product, but they also invent their lives. They become a teacher and a plumber and an entrepreneur. It’s so exciting on so many levels.
CGM: So what it is that separates those of us who say, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ and those who do?
SG: All of these people come across a problem in their lives and they come up with a solution and they figure, ‘Well if it will help me, it will help other people,’ and that’s usually the birth process of a product.
The brain of an inventor is a little different from other people’s brains in that they’re looking for solutions. When they come to a roadblock, instead of going around it the way most people do, they think, ‘How can I get over this? What can I do to make this roadblock go away and go forward smoothly?’
And the other thing is, sometimes, you do think of solution but you don’t act on it. So it takes a very special person to come up with an idea and then follow it down that path of invention. It’s a very bumpy road. It’s expensive and you’ve got patents and attorneys and prototypes. There’s a lot of hassle between idea and marketplace, and a lot of people don’t have the stomach for it. The inventor who’s successful does. He or she takes it all the way.
CGM: Will the show also be a sort of primer for aspiring inventors who don’t know where to begin?
SG: Potential inventors are going to see the process, both the upside and the downside.
But even if you’re not an inventor, I think after you see the show, you’ll gain an appreciation for all the things around you. I mean, everything we touch and pick up and use has a story behind it, has a patent behind it, and has someone’s blood sweat and tears behind it. So when you grab a tool in your kitchen, it isn’t just there magically. Someone had to think it up and bring it to prototype and fix it and bring it to marketplace. There’s a whole process and story and a lot of angst behind all of those products. And I think you gain a new appreciation for all these things that we touch and use all day long.
CGM: How did you go about bringing that to television?
SG: When I wrote my book, I originally put it out there as a television show because I came from the world of television — and nobody wanted it [laughs]. Then inventions became popular and suddenly a whole bunch of production companies came knocking on my door, saying hey, we want to do an invention show. So the folks from Lucky Dog TV came over and said they had this idea for a show and did I want to be involved in it — I absolutely wanted to do it.
And I had just done a ten-part series with Patrick on what every inventor needs know for the American Inventors Association. So we had worked together already on that project and we’d worked together on other things as well, and it just seemed natural to take it further on this show.
CGM: …and it seems like a natural next step for the Food Network brand, since these are the people who are creating the things that home cooks, chefs and restaurant owners depend on.
SG: Absolutely! And I think every chef would agree that great tools make a great chef. To do anything in this world, to have the right tool makes it so much easier.
And we’re showcasing everything, by the way. It’s not just the preparation of food; it’s the growing of food to the preparing to the consumption to the disposal. Anything in the cycle of food is fair game for this show.
CGM: The casting process must have been monumental — to find people who had the right kind of product, plus the ability to make decent television.
SG: It’s huge! Because the reality of it is that — because of the necessities of television — we had to keep them geographically close for each episode. And we had to find products that we thought were going to be winners and that we could get a licensing deal for. It’s a real challenge. And then of course they have to fit the requirements of being geographically right, that their patents are in order, that their paperwork is in order. There’s a lot of due diligence before you put them on TV.
But we put out a lot of requests through our contacts and we whittled it down to the inventors that we think had the best chance of getting a deal.
I look at other TV shows and frankly this show has a lot of heavy lifting. Other shows, they’re renovating someone’s kitchen or dining room or something — the whole show, the whole 20 minutes takes place in one room, one location and that’s it. Our show can entail six, seven locations in one half hour. We have to take out the product and test it out. We have to pitch it to a major company and see if we can get a licensing deal. There’s so many different levels in there — plus the prework — that as shows go, this is a tough show to put together and hard work for everyone involved in front of and behind the camera. But it’s super rewarding. I love what we’re doing and I love the topic.
CGM: Despite that due diligence, how often do you run into things that you thought would be a sure bet and turned out to be a bust — or vice versa?
SG: Almost every time we test run a product, I’m surprised by the results. Either it’s way better than I thought it would be, or way worse than I thought it would be.
Plus, I see problems with the product that I wouldn’t have guessed myself. You know we had little kids testing out Pour Sure (pictured above) — and I knew it had some problems, but when I saw kids using it, we saw problems that we hadn’t seen before. So every time you do that — even when you do a question-and-answer in the mall, when you ask how much would you pay for this and how much do you think something is worth — you find out things about people’s sense of the value of something, and it gives you a better sense of price-pointing.
So even these non-scientific studies really help us out. They help us with picking the name, with rebranding it and with deciding we want to move forward with it or not.
CGM: After you’ve hunted down the products and chosen the ones you want to promote, what do viewers see happen next in each episode.
SG: I’m a big believer — and Patrick is, too — in experts. There are people in this world who make their living making prototypes. Making packaging. Rebranding products. So what we do is we take a product and if we think it needs it — if the name is not working, if the packaging is not working — we take it to the right people to take it to the next level. To make sure it looks its absolute best when we try to get it a licensing deal.
Because the people you’re asking to license a product might not have the imagination to see where this product could go. If you repackage it, rebrand it, rename it, you have a better change of getting that deal.
CGM: You’ve said you were born into an invention-loving family. Can you tell me a little about the inventors you’re related to?
SG: Well, my dad had filed a couple of patents and came up with a few different things like an improved gutter system for the house. And he was always turning everything into a lamp. My mother used to joke that if I stayed still in the house too long, he would turn me into a lamp. He was very, very handy. A coffee pot became a lamp. He had memorabilia from World War II and it all became a lamp. Anything he had around the house, if he had a free afternoon, it was turned into a lamp. So we had more lamps than we had tables to put them on.
And my brother — also very, very handy. He loved coming up with things. He came up with a thing that told you when plants needed to be watered. Now there’s a lot of those things, but he came up with it years before and never got a patent. He came up with another product for putting a bib on a baby.
My whole life I’ve watched my whole family really embrace the idea of invention. I can remember my dad always taking things apart. We’d be walking through a store, and he’d be knocking on things to see what materials they were made out of and turning them upside down. My whole family was very tactile. You take us anywhere and we’re knocking on stuff and turning it upside down and we learned that from my dad. It’s very much apart of who I am.
CGM: Begging the logical next question — any inventions of your own?
SG: Well, I certainly have had a lot of input on other people’s inventions. and I can see how they can be improved. I think I have a good eye for that.
And my book is an invention. I created it and I have to promote it and that makes me an entrepreneur.
I’ve also been involved in the creation of a couple of apps that I’ve worked on with a team, so even though it’s not necessarily something you can hold, it’s still coming up with a problem and then finding a solution. That’s kept me occupied, as well.
CGM: What might we find you doing when you’re not hunting — or displaying — inventions?
SG: Truthfully, there isn’t a whole lot of time! But I’m an avid biker. I love to kayak. And I’m a big restaurant/foodie. That’s another thing my family is big on. I’d say we’re restaurant people first, inventors second. I mean, we’re the kind of family that when we’re eating at a restaurant, we’re talking about the next restaurant that we’re going to. We do a lot, a lot of restaurant going and I’m very big on restaurants and I’m very big on finding a good meal.
That’s one of the nice things about when we travel around the country doing the show, There’s an app called TV Food Maps and it tells you where different TV shows have done their shows — what restaurants. So whether it’s a Food Network show or anther network’s show, we can check out whether they’ve been there and then maybe we’ll go there, too!
New episodes of Invention Hunters air Monday nights at 9/8CT on Food Network.