The hydrogen-powered generator that was almost a home-shopping hit

Joy, last year’s film about QVC and Home Shopping Network inventor Joy Mangano, may not have been the best collaboration between superstar Jennifer Lawrence and director David O. Russell. But the fact that Mangano inspired a major movie — as well as her continued success — says something about both invention and entrepreneurship. Between rapidly advancing high-tech gadgetry and the huge focus on the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley, it’s easy to forget that the umbrella of invention is much wider. As Joy shows, it’s about finding a new solution to an existing problem. Easier said than done, of course.

That spirit of invention is what drove the American Dreams invention competition, a partnership between HSN and Good Housekeeping magazine. Hundreds of teams sent in details about their inventions, and about 100 were chosen to pitch to a panel of judges from HSN and Good Housekeeping. Out of that group, nine just-announced finalists will show their products on-air for HSN in December, and one winner will be granted the coveted Good Housekeeping Seal.

While HSN sells plenty of technology-focused products and has partnerships with major companies like Microsoft and Amazon, the contest mostly stayed in HSN’s traditionally popular categories. The finalists included home, kitchen and beauty products, with a smattering of home-improvement and travel accessories mixed in. That’s not to downplay the work being done by these inventors — but my hopes for seeing someone pitching some unknown, possibly experimental new technology appeared to be dashed. That is, until Marc Collins and Leah Lastre, the creators of iHOD, made their presentation.

Putting aside the unfortunate name for a moment, the iHOD Energypod is a product that’s unlike anything I’ve really seen before. At its most basic, the deceptively heavy sphere is a portable power generator — but instead of running on diesel, it uses small hydrogen pods that it can convert into energy on the fly. It’s silent and produces very little in the way of emissions, so it’s safe to use inside.

It includes a few standard 110v power sockets as well as USB connectors to keep your phone going. The obvious use case is in the home as a backup power supply in case of emergency, but iHOD also sees it as a way for people to stay connected wherever they are. Its capabilities are impressive, but they come with a few caveats.

Most notable is safety: You’re probably thinking, "Isn’t hydrogen highly combustible?" Fair point. It’s something judges asked iHOD about when the company showed its creation, and it’s obviously something it’s considered. The fuel pods, little hockey pucks that power the Energypod, contain two inert powders. Once water is added to the mix, hydrogen is created and pumped into the reactor to create electricity.

Collins said the iHOD team had been working on ways to use hydrogen safely for about four years before coming up with the current formula; he also noted there were two key safety points that allow the Energypod to do what it does. "The first one is to keep things, so we run it at a very low temperature," Collins said. "The next one is keeping the pressure low through the method within the pod itself. We run that around 7psi — if you kiss someone, you’ve got about that kind of pressure."

Between the low temperature and pressure, as well as the fact the fuel pods are inert, iHOD believes its method is totally safe. But it’s still powerful — in the demo I saw, the Energypod was powering a small flat-screen TV, a Samsung tablet, a USB fan and a lamp. Collins says it outputs between 105 and 110 watts, and iHOD is working on making more powerful versions as well.

All this power comes at a cost, though — iHOD set pricing for the Energypod at $899, and fuel pods cost $20 each. Collins declined to say exactly how long a pod would last; it certainly will vary depending on what’s plugged in and how hard you’re pushing it. While that price feels high in a vacuum, there’s really nothing to compare the Energypod to, and it’s not so crazy that people wouldn’t consider having it around for emergencies as well as the odd camping trip.

The panel of judges from HSN and Good Housekeeping

IHOD didn’t fit in with the rest of the products pitched at the HSN American Dreams competition. But that didn’t keep the judges from showing a lot of interest in it — in fact, the Energypod was picked to be one of the finalists to pitch its product directly on the air for HSN. It was set to show up competing for the top spot alongside items like the self-explanatory Travel Head Pillow, the surprisingly cool Re-Grip (which adds a strong and sturdy plastic grip to any handle), and the Original Wall Stamp (which lets you add patterns and art to your walls). IHOD’s ambitious and somewhat experimental product was truly an outlier in the field; you can find more details on all the finalists here and judge for yourself how well it fits in.

The Re-Grip in action.

But unfortunately for iHOD, the company wasn’t able to meet the manufacturing timeline dictated by the contest, and it was dropped from the event. For its part, iHOD’s Leah Lustre told me over email that the completion of iHOD preproduction units didn’t fit with the Good Housekeeping magazine deadline, but the current plan is to have the Energypod ready to deliver to customers by the end of Q1 2017.

This delay doesn’t stop the Energypod from being a standout, in large part because the company has plans that go far beyond offering portable power for people in the US. It’s starting here as a retail product, but Collins spoke at length about his desire to help get people on the grid in countries without a developed electrical infrastructure.

"We set the business up originally to try and get sufficient personal power to Africa, to the billions of people that don’t have energy or electricity,’ he said. "That’s a big market, and you can’t put a grid together and start pushing out electricity the same as we have in the US or Europe." In some ways, iHOD’s US launch is a test case for getting out to other markets that will rely on the Energypod as a sole power source rather than a backup generator.

"This is a steppingstone, a way of getting power out to the people that need it in the US for various purposes," Collins said. "But then we want to push the humanitarian side of things and start others connect to the rest of the world." It’s a bold mission, but iHOD will need to get its manufacturing processes sorted out to achieve that goal — and it’ll have to do so without the boost in popularity that HSN and Good Housekeeping’s contest would have provided. But an HSN spokesperson says the retailer will likely work with iHOD down the line. Still, it’s too bad iHOD wasn’t able to get to the finals — a product so far outside HSN’s comfort zone could have inspired some other tech inventors to try and get on cable’s biggest retailer in the future.

from Engadget