Every entrepreneur dreams of building a better something - think mousetrap, app or gee-whiz gadget.
One local team set its sights on antennas.
The team's efforts, which started as research at N.C. State University, have been aimed at designing new antennas for the military. That's still a top goal, but in March they began selling an indoor antenna that receives free over-the-air, high-definition digital TV signals.
The $44 Mohu Leaf debuted way down (No. 600+) onAmazon.com's ranking of "HDTV antennas," but recently reached No. 1. Mohu's employees, working out of cluttered offices in a North Raleigh strip mall, are assembling and shipping up to 80 a day. Last week, they had sold more than 2,400.
"We're not calling it a home run yet, but this is a ticket to the game," said Mark Buff, co-founder and CEO of Mohu and its sister company GreenWave Scientific. "This is the first sign of moving beyond paying the bills and looking at explosive growth."
Though the Triangle isn't Silicon Valley with its fabled garage startups, it is home to a wide range of research that evolves into promising young companies.
Many start and stumble. A few flourish.
The three partners behindMohu and GreenWave hope to become a success story.
The Mohu Leaf was designed by chief technology officer Michael Barts, a Virginia Tech PhD in electrical engineering and ham-radio enthusiast. The goal was to develop a consumer-friendly antenna that would pass the "wife test" in terms of its looks, and give budget-conscious viewers a better choice for cutting off cable or satellite TV.
"It's going back to the days of getting signals over the air," Barts said.
As part of the design process, Mohu's partners went shopping. They bought about a dozen antennas from bigger rivals such as RCA and Terk, and then threw them all into a large cardboard box. Their verdict: "Most existing antennas are so inferior," Barts said.
Buff notes that most were more expensive, but some competitors have cut their prices on Amazon since Mohu began selling its Leaf for $44.
The Leaf is a laminated black, paper-thin rectangle with a cord coming off the bottom. It hangs on a wall or window. One California blogger who helped build buzz for the Leaf with a positive plug wrote that when he opened the box, it was "the least breathtaking piece of electronics I have ever come across."
Still, that review, and others on Amazon, have helped boost sales.
In today's economy, more consumers are eager for options that allow them to avoid the soaring cost of cable TV, including Internet streaming services, said Megan Pollock, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Electronics Association.
And an increasing number are learning the value of a good antenna that can receive free digital signals, she added. TV broadcasters are adding more choices as the technology improves.
"The market potential is enormous," Pollock said. "This is a place where a young, exciting company could come in and take hold."
Pollock hasn't tried the Mohu Leaf, but said the key tests are whether it works, and whether it's simple to set up and use. That will distinguish it from rivals.
"Do you have to keep wiggling it around? The less you have to do, the more excited consumers will be about using it," Pollock said.
In this region, customers can receive about 20 channels so far. Mohu's biggest markets are in California and New York, where customers report getting 50 or more.
The company's return rate is about 1 percent, Buff said. Some customers are unhappy because factors that interfere with reception can pixilate the signal.
Director of operations Russ Winstead, the team's third partner, developed the Leaf's manufacturing process. That's about 10 steps: stamping thin metal sheets, applying adhesive, laminating, packaging and stacking the boxes just inside the front door for the post office to pick up.
Buff started antenna research for the military as he earned a doctorate in electrical engineering at N.C. State University. That work evolved into GreenWave, which he founded in 2006.
The company is testing three antennas for the Navy and military subcontractors. One partner, Shakespeare, is the South Carolina company known for its "whip" antennas on military jeeps and other vehicles.
GreenWave's antennas send and receive broadband signals, helping improve communications with massive vehicles and robots in the field. Some of the work is essentially electronic warfare, with jammers that block radio-controlled roadside bombs. One antenna is built into a huge mud flap.
That work still could reap big profits if one or more antennas succeed. But money from defense contracts is getting squeezed by tight government budgets.
That prompted Buff's team to get creative, taking their antenna skills and developing something they could sell directly to consumers.
"We saw an opportunity with huge demand for a better HDTV antenna, but also liked the idea of diversification," he said.
In December, the GreenWave partners incorporated Mohu and set to work on the Leaf.
The private companies employ about a dozen people but don't disclose financial results.
Mohu may hire a few more people if orders for the Leaf continue to increase. GreenWave will likely let partners handle production if it wins a big contract.
Since they're running small companies, the partners handle almost every aspect of the business, including creating a website, posting instructional videos on YouTube, designing packaging, answering customer calls and more.
Buff reached out to money-saving bloggers, including the one in California. Barts came up with the Leaf's tagline: "No cable. No dish. No bills."
"We love the chaos and every one has skin in the game," Buff said. To be clear: "We're all in it to make a profit. Otherwise, we could go work 8 to 5 for a big company."
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