Worth Its Salt?

By Rick Barrett, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MILWAUKEE - Why didn't we think of it?

That's how engineers from lawn and snow products manufacturer Ariens Co. reacted when they first saw the snow-thrower accessory invented by sixth-grade students Matt Moran and Sam Hipple.

The students from Davenport, Iowa, built a rock salt dispenser that mounts under the handlebars of an Ariens snow thrower and spreads salt along the machine's path, allowing the user to clear snow and melt ice in one pass.

The invention is made from a garden fertilizer spreader and some bicycle parts. Called the Mega Melter, it will be developed and sold by Ariens.

Matt and Sam will receive a cash royalty for each of the salt spreaders that Ariens sells through stores such as Home Depot and smaller equipment dealerships.

Terms of the deal haven't been publicly disclosed, but over a period of years, the boys could receive tens of thousands of dollars.

"The patent is spending, and we have no reason to think it won't be formalized," said Dan Ariens, president of the Brillion, Wis.-based Ariens Co., which has built lawn and garden equipment for 75 years. "I hope that we can get these boys through college without an expense to their parents."

Matt and Sam got their idea when they entered an invention competition sponsored by the engineering colleges at the University of Iowa and Iowa State University. The boys, now in the seventh grade, also were looking for an easier way to remove snow and ice from their sidewalk and driveway last winter.

"It was a time saver" to use the snow thrower and spread salt at the same time, Matt said.

The competition was part of a program called Invent Iowa that encourages students in grades K-12 to seek and solve problems. In the annual event, hundreds of students come up with inventions ranging from toilet paper protectors to extendible handles for baby strollers.

"There's some type of engineering involved in every one of these projects," said Clar Baldus, Invent Iowa state convention coordinator and a University of Iowa administrator. "We did a survey of the invention once, and it pretty much ran the gamut of what you would find at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office."

Ariens Co. noticed Matt and Sam's invention through an Iowa newspaper article.

"We saw a picture of these two boys with an Ariens snow thrower they had mounted their device on," Dan Ariens recalled. "I sent them a letter of congratulations, and at the end of it I said 'let's talk'" about commercializing the invention.

Ariens Co. said this month it signed a letter of intent with Matt and Sam to produce and distribute their invention as early as next year.

It's a "viable, marketable and useful product idea," Dan Ariens said. "Our employees saw the potential and ran with it."

The basic design is sound and won't take a lot of refinement, according to the company.

Through trial and error, the boys modified a garden fertilzer spreader so that it opened and closed by pulling on a bicycle brake handle. One of their ideas was to use vibration from the snow thrower to make salt come out of the spreader, but that didn't work.

Ariens has done patent searches for similar products, and the invention seems unique for a snow thrower. A provisional patent has been filed in the boys' names and is pending.

"It was their intellectual curiosity that got us where we are with this invention," Ariens said. "The word 'breakthrough' might be a little strong, but what they came up with certainly is an innovative feature for a snow thrower."

Ariens Co. is keeping the boys informed of the product's development. The company plans to sell the salt spreader as an accessory for new and existing snow throwers.

"It's an idea that made it all the way up the ladder. Other ideas haven't made it this far," he said.