It was not the product of a corporate research and design department, but the brainchild of independent inventors that changed the fitness industry forever. Precor's 1995 launch of the elliptical trainer, which now rivals the treadmill as one of the most popular fitness machines, was built from technology purchased from independent inventors.

Nearly 20 years later, independent inventors continue to be a driving force for new products and technology that eventually end up within the four walls of many fitness facilities. About one-third of Precor's product innovations come from outside the company, says Adam Hubbard, Precor's director of product management. Precor, Woodinville, WA, receives more than 20 product submissions per week, Hubbard says.

Precor's use of independent inventors is not unusual. Fitness manufacturers often license technologies from inventors, says Bryan O'Rourke, president of the Fitness Industry Technology Council. Not all the inventions are new products. Some are technological improvements to existing products. 

"In this space, there seems to be more independent ideas than in a lot of other spaces where [research and development] departments drive innovation," says Jason Buratti, an intellectual property and business consultant and attorney.

A network of about 15 inventors is responsible for most of the major product innovations in the fitness industry, Hubbard says.

"Having a good relationship with those folks is really key," Hubbard says. "The fitness industry is very small, so if a company treats outside inventors unethically, then the pipeline closes up pretty quickly."

Steps to Your Fitness Floor

After developing an idea, inventors seek advice from a competent patent attorney and apply for provisional patents, Buratti says. Patents are relatively inexpensive and protect both the inventor and the company investing in the technology, Hubbard says. Precor prefers to see patented ideas because it saves time and hassle for both parties if the idea has been proven patentable.

"It demonstrates to Precor that they have some skin in the game," Hubbard says. "It's not just some napkin sketch."

Inventors also must create a brand for the product and get testimonials from a small customer base, Buratti says. A professionally prepared marketing deck is another essential tool.

Inventors can then start seeking a manufacturer for the product. Inventors often have success with companies that recognize a new idea and move it quickly up the chain, says Dave Johnson, director of ECOFit Networks, a fitness technology startup based in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Large companies and publicly held corporations have proven the most difficult for ECOFit to penetrate, Johnson says.

To get ECOFit off the ground, Johnson and his business partner developed relationships with smaller manufacturers that helped them gain exposure at trade shows that the company would not otherwise have been able to afford.

To be successful, independent inventors should make themselves aware of the needs of the industry and what other companies are doing in the space, especially in technology, Johnson says.

"There's going to be a lot of disruption in this space for a little while," Johnson says. "Google and Apple are both coming into the fitness markets. What could be very relevant right now could be very irrelevant a couple of months from now."

Industry awareness led ECOFit to move away from its original product, which was targeted at energy-generating fitness equipment. Instead, the company now focuses on a broad wireless equipment networking system.

Selection Process

The hardest part about reviewing invention submissions is separating the good products from the great ones, Hubbard says. Many good products exist, but only the great ones get noticed by a manufacturer.

Precor has certain criteria for inventions to be considered for development. They must be viable, innovative and fit within Precor's competency—its ability to manufacture and market the product in a way that is profitable and serves customers, Hubbard says.

Hubbard adds that inventors feel comfortable submitting ideas to Precor because the company has a good reputation and its products are manufactured in the United States, where inventors can feel safe about intellectual property protection.

Precor receives invention submissions via its company website. Inventors also can attend industry trade shows or work with consultants who specialize in marketing inventions to get their ideas in front of key decision-makers.

"I think anyone would be foolish to not entertain an outside idea from a business standpoint," Hubbard says. "The only thing that would prevent you from doing it would be pride. I just can't imagine any business that wouldn't viably entertain outside ideas."