Ben Ashpole has a technology company, and its first product is the infomercial-ready Pocket Grill, boasted to be “the first full-sized grill that fits in your pocket.”
And with a Kickstarter campaign, he’s aiming to push the first round of the grills into the market.
After leaving a job working on software for “a certain large defense contractor with offices in the region” in 2006 and earning a master’s degree in computer science from the University of Pennsylvania, Ashpole starting growing a list of software clients for what would become Bashpole Inc. in 2008. But all along, he had hobby projects, tinkering and tweaking existing products and dreaming up new ones.
- Hit up
- and pledge $40 for a grill upon completion of the campaign or $150 before major production, with personalization and a signed Pocket Grill cookbook.
By spring 2009, Ashpole’s hobbyist tinkering had grown enough that he thought there might be another business there. He posted an ad on Penn’s student job listings and on craigslist: “something like ‘entrepreneur has backlog of projects, seeks assistance,” he said. One of those projects on his mind was a pocket-sized grill that could actually withhold a hearty slew of meat and vegetables.
Ashpole, 30, took on three engineer masters students, one of whom helped develop the application that led to the company’s first patent, which covers the grill’s particular flexible folding joint, something that could be used in other products, Ashpole said. By the end of 2009, he found Jay Olman, his first full-time employee who helped push forward the design, manufacturing and implementation of the product and that new company, the Bashpole Group.
Not, of course, to be confused with Bashpole Inc., the software company that now has four programmers in a narrow Center City office — “the two companies are named so similar because I’m that creative,” Ashpole said with a laugh.
“The idea first came while hiking on the Appalachian Trail a couple years ago… I really did go camping and just had food falling everywhere,” Ashpole said. “There’s a lot of effort put on new technology, and I’ve done a lot of that for a long time and still do. The Bashpole Group is a technology company in that we’re interested in patents and doing something new, but, then, we’re anti-technology because we want to do it as simple as possible, often with what already exists in the real world. There are no space age polymers in the Pocket Grill. It’s steel and a new way to fold it all together.”
Sitting in his offices on 23rd Street below Sansom early this month, Ashpole sounds like a reluctant salesman — more builder than boaster — but he says he and his team of Olman and two paid Penn interns with mechanical engineering backgrounds are excited about being involved in every stage of the process: from design to prototyping to manufacturing to marketing to selling. But there’s no secret what interests this pack, sitting around a table just off a creaky elevator and a few steps away from the hum of the Bashpole Inc. software team and two one-man startups sharing work stations.
“I always liked building things. When I was 10, I started programming and got pretty good at it. But there’s something particularly special about building something you can touch and interact with,” said Ashpole, who has been active with Philly Startup Leaders. “And I think that goes for most of the people who have been involved here.”
Taking on the entire product lifetime challenged Ashpole, he said. “We had to prototype how to prototype.”
They sought advice from professors, mentors, small business advice centers and “anyone who would listen,” but he found a real disconnect between those who know inventions and those who knew how to market inventions.
Ashpole, an Indiana University graduate, makes a clear distinction between consulting and building products outright.
“There are consulting groups like the Bresslergroup and Ideo, but I’m not as interested in solving problems for other companies,” “I’m interested in the full spectrum here with my team.”
The Versatile Pocket Grillâ„¢ from Bashpole Group on Vimeo.
So the Pocket Grill is serving as their big test. Ashpole said he used to wonder what people were doing when they worked on the same project for years, “and here I am working for years on this project.”
“The manufacturing decisions were challenging, we tried domestically and overseas. Some U.S. manufacturers were competitive, but they needed huge quantities, like 25,000 on first shipment,” Olman said. The company tried laser cutting, casting, welding, forging, bending and other processes across some 40 manufacturing companies, Olman added.
But as the Pocket Grill nears a chance to ship, Ashpole said he is excited about a handful of other projects and patent applications in the works.
Said Olman, with a smirk: “There are a lot of annoying things in the world that need fixing and until that’s no more, inventions will be important.”
The Sturdy Pocket Grillâ„¢ from Bashpole Group on Vimeo.
Ashpole and Olman are a pair of Midwest boys, and they still have the reserved expressions and quiet laughs of their perceived roots, though both now live in Center City and ‘happily walk to work,’ Ashpole said. Ashpole, from Indiana, found Philly after taking that software job with that certain defense contractor before Penn. Olman, 25, from Cincinnati, took a job with an engineering firm in Iowa after graduating Penn but when he got laid off he came back: “I liked it here and thought this is where I wanted to find work.”
Ashpole too seems firmly rooted here.
“Philly has talent. What I’ve been able to find here is people with the interest and the knowledge to work on a single idea and bring that to market. Contrary to what you might think, I don’t believe that’s something that exists everywhere,” he said. “In five years, the Bashpole Group will still be here with a handful of people — a small and creative team — getting products and patents out. The dream is to build.”
Pocket Grill in Rittenhouse Square from Bashpole Group on Vimeo.
[Pocket Grill facts]