There’s no beach it fears to tread

By GREGORY ZELLER //

Forgive John Cornwell for not coming up with a snappy name, just yet, for his first invention.

It’s a portable, lightweight cart that’s strong enough to carry coolers and umbrellas and rides on a tank-like tread that conquers sandy beaches like an M1 Abrams. The clever innovation fairly screams with name potential – The Sand Shark! The Shoreline Transportatron 3000! Shell on Wheels!

corwell-mug

John Cornwell

But Cornwell’s a busy man. He has a full-time job he loves, managing corporate sales for the Competition Automotive Group of St. James, and few hours to devote to his inner maker. So, about a decade since he first had the idea, seven years since a crude prototype impressed beachgoers and 30 months since the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office gave Cornwell design exclusivity, the inventor is still tinkering, and the fancy names await.

(For the record, he’s leaning toward The Land Turtle, though even he remains unsold.)

While he certainly intends to manufacture and market his innovation, Cornwell was derailed for years while awaiting his patent. Now he’s focused on moving his vehicle along, and various commercialization options are under consideration.

He thought it all up at the beach, of course, sitting in the sand and watching sun-worshippers struggle with their bags and umbrellas. Existing beach carts outfitted with big, buggy-like wheels were struggling in the sand, Cornwell observed, and to carry anything of size, they needed to be fairly large themselves.

What was needed was a beach-friendly cart that could carry the cooler and the rest while meeting two strict criteria: It needed to somehow reduce drag so it could traverse the sand, and it needed to fit easily in the beachgoer’s car.

Cornwell’s solution: a virtually flat (about 6 inches tall), lightweight (roughly 18 pounds) platform on a single-belt tread – picture the conveyer belt at the supermarket checkout – that distributes weight evenly over the platform surface, allowing the tread to more easily navigate sand.

Cornwell constructed a “really crude prototype” and recalls the one and only time he took it out in public, on Labor Day 2008. He inserted a vertical tube to prop up a beach umbrella, opened the umbrella and started along the crowded beach, instantly making a splash.

“Everybody was jumping off their blankets,” he told Innovate LI. “Imagine, you’re sitting there on the beach and you see this open umbrella just moving along. There was a lot of interest.”

The positive response convinced Cornwell to apply for a patent – and ironically, that helped bring his experiments to a halt, at least temporarily. With the patent pending, he didn’t want to reveal too much about the design and functionality, so that first trip to the beach was also the last, and as the wait for the patent stretched on, the inventor unhappily put the project aside.

“I never wanted to do anything with it while the patent was pending,” Cornwell noted. “I really didn’t feel comfortable soliciting financial investments or anything. But I always felt if I could get the patent in hand, I could move forward.”

Two-plus-years since the USPTO finally issued the patent, Cornwell – still highly invested in an automotive sales career that’s stretched nearly three decades – is now keen on taking The Land Turtle, or whatever, to market.

One of the device’s best features, he noted, is its easy configurability. It can be modified with hooks for bungee cords and posts for propping up umbrellas or tying down bags; so long as the tread is the exact same width and length as the load platform, the basic weight-distributed design works at virtually any size, “from a postage stamp to a football field,” according to Cornwell.

“It’s non-dimensional,” he noted. “There’s no specific size to the thing. The patent is wide open on that.”

The patent also includes several interesting provisions that open the Turtle to several potential verticals. Chief among them: the tread belts can be imprinted with corporate logos, so the Turtle leaves a trail of them in the sand, an innovation Cornwell called “the high point of the whole patent.”

“The potential there is unreal,” he said. “It sounds silly, but the potential of leasing the rights to hotel chains that can use this vehicle as they’re picking up chairs or cleaning the beach, and leave their logos in the sand … it’s a huge opportunity.”

The rollers can even be switched out to change logos or messages – the hotel one day, its steakhouse the next – and can also leave an impression in wet cement, according to Cornwell, allowing any corporate customer to make its mark in freshly laid concrete.

Cornwell, who uses one of his early prototypes to move 300-pound stone pavers around his yard, suggested several potential markets, from private uses at the beach and in the yard to helping seniors haul their healthcare equipment to commercial applications for landscapers and contractors.

He’s still not soliciting investors, though a chance meeting with the Long Island Angel Network might change that tune. Competition Automotive Group as invited to showcase a few new Mercedes outside a recent LIAN meeting, and the evening turned into an eye-opener for Cornwell, who’s now “open minded” about his next move.

Perhaps he’ll sell off the patent, or lease it, or raise enough to begin a small-scale production effort and focus on Internet sales. Either way, he’s definitely thinking ahead: Potential innovations include dual treads, which could permit more maneuverability without sacrificing weight distribution, and a low-power motor offering a “power assist” mode to overcome stubborn dunes and steep hills.

For now, the inventor is finishing “an efficient, quality prototype, real nice in appearance and quality,” to take before investors or use on patent-sales pitches. Whatever happens next, after years of taking it slow, Cornwell is ready to speed up The Turtle.

“This could be how I make my living someday, if I can get this thing cranked,” he said. “I feel like maybe this is my chance.”