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Updated Nov 10, 2023

What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From the Protolabs Cool Idea Award

Get inspired to turn your cool idea into a business.

Cailin Potami
Cailin Potami, Business Strategy Insider and Senior Writer
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Editor Reviewed
This guide was reviewed by a Business News Daily editor to ensure it provides comprehensive and accurate information to aid your buying decision.

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At the heart of every groundbreaking business is a great idea. Original concepts that address real-world problems in innovative, compelling ways create products that meaningfully improve customers’ lives. However, having a great small business idea isn’t enough on its own. It takes time, organization, materials, and often a substantial financial investment to transform a great idea into a successful business. 

The Protolabs Cool Idea Award aims to help innovators start their businesses. The organization’s work over the past decade offers budding entrepreneurs a glimpse into exactly what it takes to turn your idea into a product and set up your business for success. 

What is the Protolabs Cool Idea contest?

Protolabs — a provider of computer numerical control (CNC) machines and injection-molded parts — awards a manufacturing grant called the Cool Idea Award to innovative entrepreneurs who address underserved needs. Winners receive awards worth up to $250,000 and the manufacturing and promotional support that can be challenging for entrepreneurs and small business owners to establish independently. 

Protolabs offers grant recipients assistance from its expert engineers to help optimize creative business ideas for manufacturing, including: 

  • Access to the company’s CNC machining
  • Sheet metal fabrication
  • 3D printing
  • Injection molding services
  • Widespread promotion through the Protolabs network 

The company created the Cool Idea program to stimulate innovation by helping deserving products move past the idea stage to actual market viability. The contest focuses on concepts that fall into one of the following categories: 

  • Student-led ideas emerging from universities
  • Projects that come from nonprofits or mission-driven startups
  • Medical devices for use among patients or in hospitals
  • Concepts that support environmental sustainability, reduce waste, or address climate change 

So far, over 40 inventions spanning various industries have won the Cool Idea award. Here’s a look at two extraordinary winners: 

  • Flatware for cancer patients: Don Ladanyi, of Westlake, Ohio, was chosen as the first-ever recipient in 2011 for TruFlavorWare, his nonmetallic, organic, taste-inert flatware that aims to make food taste better for chemotherapy patients and others with elevated sensitivities to metal and plastic flavors. Ladanyi developed the idea for TruFlavorWare after dining with chopsticks and realizing how bamboo’s neutrality enhanced the food’s flavor. TruFlavorWare is currently sold via Amazon, Walmart, and other major retailers. 
  • Space suit accessory: Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s (ERAU) Spacesuit Utilization of Innovative Technology Lab students received a recent Cool Idea award for their otherworldly Luna Modular Operations Tool Holster (LunaMOTH) concept. The LunaMOTH is designed for astronauts to use while working on lunar surfaces. This space suit accessory lets users easily remove and replace tools from their utility belts — even when working on the moon. Its unique oblong shape helps it remain operational and accessible even under extreme conditions while covered in lunar dust, or when the user has limited visibility and mobility. Protolabs has supported this effort by digitally manufacturing parts for the LunaMOTH. 
Did You Know?Did you know
Business grants like the Cool Idea Aware are excellent ways to raise funds for your small business, especially in the early development stages. Depending on your business's needs, many nonprofit, private, and government grant options are available.

A cool business idea is only the beginning

You can’t have a great product without a cool idea, but a cool idea isn’t enough on its own. The Protolabs Cool Idea winners all must present fantastic, original concepts. However, they also must have a sturdy foundation for their product’s development and success. 

In most cases, Protolabs intervenes near the end of a product idea’s development, offering an extra boost to bring it into the world and the hands of the people who need it — whether they’re chemotherapy patients, astronauts, or anyone else. 

In addition to addressing a social, medical, or environmental need, Protolabs Cool Idea applicants must already have the following: 

  • Business plan: Protolabs Cool Idea applicants must present a complete business plan that elucidates the product’s anticipated funding, existing plans for scaling production and distribution, and a marketing plan
  • Viable product prototype: Protolabs also must verify that it has the correct tools to manufacture the end product, so applicants’ devices must be past the prototyping stage. They must have designed and tested a prototype and considered what ongoing product production might resemble. For example, before working with Protolabs, ERAU students had already designed, tested, and redesigned LunaMOTH many times using different materials, sizes, and environments. 

The Protolabs process offers meaningful guidance for anyone trying to breathe life into a business idea. 

How to come up with a cool business idea — and make it a company

Maybe you want to bring a new product into the world but can’t think of an idea that excites you. Perhaps you already have a winning idea but can’t quite bring it to the next level. 

In either case, taking a few practical steps can help you become one of the next great innovators, even if you aren’t working with a company like Protolabs. 

1. Find a market niche to inspire your innovative idea.

If you’re unsure where to start, try to identify problems or pain points a new product or service could address. Become a keen observer of your daily life and ask the following questions: 

  • What hurdles, small or large, do you face each day? 
  • Is there something in your home, on your commute, or in your office that needs improvement?
  • If you’re focused on your workplace, what issues have you or your coworkers experienced recently

Answering these questions will help you identify a market niche and determine how to reach it with your product. 

Use Google Analytics to help identify an underserved niche market or a market laden with unsatisfactory offerings. After identifying a market in need, fine-tune an offering that solves its issues.

2. Conduct a market analysis to fine-tune your cool business idea.

Once you’ve thought of a compelling idea for an underserved niche, conduct a market analysis to determine what already exists in the market. It’s essential to learn what works and what doesn’t. Take the following steps in your market analysis: 

  • Identify your industry and target customers 
  • Consider current industry trends
  • Gather intel on what your competition has already done in the space 

Market information will also help you understand how to reach your target customers through marketing and advertising. For example, consider where or how you’d like to sell your offering. How will you bring it to your target audience? 

3. Work on your elevator pitch to sell your cool business idea.

Once you have a complete idea of your product or service, it’s time to bring others on board. You’ll need a team to help you build your product, funders to pay for it, vendors to sell it, and more. To sway supporters, create a great elevator pitch

An elevator pitch engages listeners, introduces a problem, and explains how your product is the right solution. Your pitch doesn’t have to cover every moving part of your idea; it just has to open the door for a longer conversation. 

Key TakeawayKey takeaway
You'll also need to pitch your idea to potential investors with a more extensive and involved presentation after you've gained their interest.

4. Try a soft launch for your cool business idea.

The best way to determine product success is to test your new business idea on potential customers. A soft launch provides you with a limited audience of your choosing. You could invite specific people within the market or offer the product for a limited time at the location of your choice and cap how many people access it.  

Your soft launch can be a good indicator of buzz and product interest. Encourage participants to leave feedback that you can incorporate into the final design. 

5. Improve your product or service.

As you receive more feedback on your product or service — before and after its launch — consider how to improve it. Pay attention to what’s not working as you’d hoped. Note what’s resonating with customers. This feedback is valuable and critical for improving your offering. 

6. Don’t be afraid to iterate to improve your cool business idea.

The creative process is highly iterative, and that should be reflected at all stages of your product or service’s lifecycle. After you develop your idea, riff on it a little — imagine how it might work in different contexts or for different audiences. Even if this process brings you back where you started, it’s valuable. 

Experiment with various designs, materials, and manufacturing processes. You could uncover more applications for your product or service or more efficient or sustainable practices. Iteration will help you grow and adapt to the future.

Did You Know?Did you know
Signs you have a bad business idea include the concern of trusted advisors, a lack of customers, a niche that's too small, and your own lack of enthusiasm.

Trust your cool ideas, and don’t be afraid to fail

Protolabs recognizes the value of pursuing a great idea. Not all of its grant recipients’ ideas have taken off in their unique markets or entered the mainstream but all were worthwhile. Participants gained valuable insights they can apply to their next great idea. 

Treat your own great ideas with the same grace and care. If you let the fear of failure stop you before you even begin building your concept — let alone iterating on your idea — you risk missing out on something great. But if you take the time to nourish your cool ideas with the time, infrastructure, and resources they need, they could transform into a vibrant business. 

Chad Brooks contributed to the reporting and writing of this article. 

Cailin Potami
Cailin Potami, Business Strategy Insider and Senior Writer
Cailin Potami is a communications expert who has spent years helping businesses harness the power of data analysis to drive fundraising efforts and marketing campaigns. Potami has hands-on experience obtaining grant funding, developing corporate fundraising initiatives and collaborating with accounting teams on budget planning. She's even dealt with debt resolution. Potatmi has also spent significant time managing marketing efforts, including scripts for media appearances, newsletters and educational material for print, email and social media. Most recently, she has focused on digital marketing with the use of analytics and modeling, also known as intelligence performance marketing.
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