Published on Wednesday, 30 November -0001 00:00
When lifelong Kimball resident Troy Hilsgen was a boy, he thought his Erector set was the best present ever. With it, he built everything imaginable, though his curiosity in seeing how things worked didn't end there. Troy liked tinkering with his bike, taking it apart, and putting it back together in various configurations. Later, he spent a good deal of time in his dad's workshop, working with other metals. Was this just a young boy's way of passing time, or would that envisioning and putting things into a useful form lead to something bigger? As it turns out, Troy used his talents to become an inventor. In December 2007, Bobcat bought exclusive rights to his patented invention - a concrete cutter.
Necessity has been called the mother of invention. Machinery from automobiles, to farm tractors, to lawn mowers have replaced the older, slower methods and make travel along a highway, across a field or lawn easier and faster. Imagine life without them!
Inventing a mechanical piece to make his work, and others' in the business, easier makes sense in view of Troy's day job. In 1987, Hilsgen Bobcat Service became one of the first skid steer
services in Central Minnesota. Though other businesses have sprung up since then to provide a variety of services, Troy actually helped to pioneer the market. Among the jobs he performs for residences, municipalities and other customers, Troy spends a pretty fair amount of his time in concrete demolition. Up until now, only a couple of types of equipment have been used to handle labor-intensive concrete cutting jobs - handheld saws, similar to chain saws except they have circular diamond blades; or walk-behind saws. "Either way," Troy says, "it's very operator-oriented. You're literally right where the cut is being made. You are in the noise and the dirt right where the cutting is being done." It's the part he likes least about demolition. Troy believed that if he could only design something he could use from an air-conditioned or heated skid steer while enjoying his stereo, he would have the best out of the worst. The wheels in his inventor brain cranked into motion. He set to work two years ago. For the first 12 months, he primarily worked with his idea on paper before he started ordering components to actually build it. He admits there were some rough times, but he stuck with it. Then, right after Christmas 2006, he started on another phase in which he would spend four continuous months developing and changing his first prototype. He devoted as much as 60 hours a week to this labor of love that resulted in making the first concrete cut last April. He took a minute to pat himself on the back, thinking, "Sometimes, I even surprise myself." But inventing something useful and having it actually work the way it was intended is only one of the obstacles in the life of an inventor. Protecting it with a patent, an inventor's only legal protection, is a very important part of the total process. Besides being time-consuming and expensive, it turned out to be one of the hardest aspects for Troy. "It's easy to spend a huge amount of money on it," he says. "Patent attorneys get you on their mailing list and it's a friendship that never quits." Because he knows inventors who never make any money with their inventions, he was reluctant to spend the money. "Sooner or later," he says, "without it, a large corporation is going to see the invention and want to capitalize on it. In a court of law, you're not going to have anything to keep them from taking it without a patent." A huge incentive to going ahead is knowing that most big corporations don't like dealing with an invention unless there is some protection for both the company and the inventor. "There's a fair amount of trust involved on both sides," he says. So the inventor has a worthwhile idea that he develops, then he protects it with a patent. But without a buyer, he still has one more obstacle to surmount. Pretty early on, Troy started looking for companies that might be interested. When he contacted Bobcat, a large corporation, Troy learned how difficult it is to move up the ladder in the chain of command. "That's the part we worked on for almost two years from when I first approached manufacturers," he says. Bobcat was the first one he talked with, but to check out all his options, he looked at several smaller companies. "It's easier working with smaller companies and getting to the people at the top but harder to get any significant commitment from them." However, he hadn't untabled his offer to Bobcat. "It's hard to sell an idea if you don't have a working prototype," Troy says. Though Bobcat liked Troy's invention, he knew they probably wouldn't use it as-is. "Bobcat is reverse-engineering it," he says. "They might change it numerous ways and continually add to it and/or patent special unique items, but my patent will always stay the same and remain in my name." As partial payment, Troy opted to take several Bobcat items. In addition to a variety of attachments, he picked the new Bobcat S300, one of their largest.
What's next for Troy? Like the small boy playing with his Erector set and "inventing" things right and left, then moving on to other projects, Troy the adult has more inventions in the works. All of them will have utility patents, like the concrete cutter. He considers his first invention the most important one because he had so much invested. Though some people wanted to contribute financially, Troy decided to fund it entirely on his own. He reasoned that he wanted to gamble with his own money. "It was a struggle to pay those patent bills when they came in," he says, "but it was my own money. If it failed, I only had to answer to myself - and to my wife."
For all of his future inventions, Troy will have the advantage of experience with the legal end of it, and that knowledge will allow him to devote more time to actual inventions. Troy persevered through some difficult times and obstacles to get his invention to market. How does it feel to have that accomplishment behind him? "It's a pretty good feeling," he says. "The biggest relief is having the patent attorney's office off my back."
Knowing that he was successful is also a pretty good feeling. "People who are close to me and have been around this process for a couple of years, I seriously think they wondered if it was really going to happen."