CU Denver chemistry alumnus Brice Woodlock is an environmental consultant who works on construction sites, where the industrial-grade equipment, much like his home state of Texas, is big, loud and powerful.
One day, he noticed an excavator operator struggling with a large and unwieldy funnel in the bed of his truck. Something clicked in Woodlock’s mind, but at that moment it had little to do chemistry and everything to do with convenience. He’d experienced a similar frustration with funnels – albeit the smaller, rigid-plastic versions. “I just tried to figure out a better, more space-efficient way to store them,” he said. “I found out there hadn’t been this style of funnel designed and thought it would be great in the market.”
His invention is simply called the Flat Funnel. True to its name, the patent-pending implement folds flat and stores in a kitchen drawer, glove compartment or under a motorcycle seat.
Learned how to learn
The product is pretty straightforward – it’s low-density polyethylene plastic that collapses on “living hinges” on opposing sides of the funnel wall. When folded, the funnel is sleek and compact – the thickness of two credit cards. But the road to this flexible, 12-ounce prototype was long and bumpy, chockfull of challenges that come with trying to get an invention to market.
“I started with cardboard cutouts to see how things worked and then moved to plastic models,” Woodlock said of his trial-and-error process. “You’ve got to figure out what you want to learn on your own vs. what you want to pay (someone else to do). Just making all the decisions – there are so many hats you have to wear and so many things you have to learn quickly.”
He said his education at CU Denver – he earned a master of science degree in inorganic chemistry in 2002 – helped immensely throughout the three-year process. “At CU Denver, I learned how to learn.” Under the mentorship of Professor Xiaotai Wang, PhD, Woodlock delivered his master’s report on silver reactions with organic molecules – specifically on how the molecules could revert back to their original form.
‘Program really fit with my goals’
“My dad was a chemist, and he did similar work,” said Woodlock, who received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Texas State University-San Marcos. “So I kind of followed in his footsteps when I came here to Colorado.”
He said the mountains were an attraction, as was the master’s program offered by the Chemistry Department in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “This is one of the few schools that had an MS degree program in inorganic chemistry,” Woodlock said. “The program at CU Denver really fit with my goals.”
Now, Woodlock is the founder of his own company, Bellfig Creative. He’s discovered creative ways to market the Flat Funnel – one being the “Flat Funnel Adventures” tab on his website. The page showcases the funnel in front of various tourist attractions – the U.S. Capitol Building, Mount Rainier, and the throne immortalized on “Game of Thrones,” to name a few.
Being a marketer, entrepreneur, website builder, social media practitioner and patent seeker – all factor into Woodlock’s enterprise, and are disciplines he is learning as he goes. The biggest surprise encountered since launching his business? “Just knowing what to ask when you’re starting something new,” he said.
More than Flat Funnels
While the Flat Funnel has plenty of selling points – it’s made of food-grade plastic, meaning it can also be used as a cutting board and measuring cup – Woodlock is taking his collapsible-product idea in other directions. He’s also pursuing a plastic storage box that can fold flat when not in use.
So, far he’s gone through 1,000 Flat Funnels in both sales and handouts. They are manufactured in China, and his first order was a batch of 5,000. He is hoping to get his product on store shelves, and he plans to expand the Flat Funnels in size and color. For now, he gets the word out on his website and at trade shows, including a major kitchen-equipment event next month in Chicago.
When Woodlock introduces people to the Flat Funnel, the typical response is that they wish they’d thought of it, followed by surprise that the product isn’t already on the market.
As for Woodlock, he sees his future funneling through this – and other – plastic innovations yet to come from Bellfig Creative. “I want to take this on because I have multiple ideas on how to make this a long-term career path, rather than something that’s fleeting.”