The Coolest Way to Prototype

Once upon a time, at the end of the 20th century, Ryan Grepper of Montana had a weed whacker but no yard. One day, he turned the weed whacker into a blender, and added it to a beverage cooler that he’d modified to play music.

These tinkerings became the very first version of the Coolest cooler, which raised $13.2 million in a Kickstarter campaign last summer — at the time a record sum — and started shipping to backers this month.

“The Coolest was basically my attempt to correct every shortcoming that I’ve ever experienced with any other cooler,” Grepper says. “Looking back, the last big innovation in coolers was wheels.”

It took a while for his vision to materialize.

Grepper and his wife moved to Portland and started a family. It took them a few years to make friends and get out of the house, and they discovered that their makeshift beach party — the cooler and the blender — had not aged well. As a product developer and early fan of MakerBot, Grepper knew that he could do better, and started to play around with a cooler that would make a family trip to the park nicer and easier. He prototyped battery connections and a blender lock, and, armed with the know-how and the tools, used his MakerBot Replicator to iterate as he went.

“That first one probably won’t work the way you imagined it, but that’s a chance to learn what else could be better and then go back and iterate,” he says.

In product development, Grepper uses 3D printing mostly to test for functionality. Does his hypothesis make sense in the real world? What can be refined? Prototyping helps him recognize pain points quickly.

“3D printers make it so easy. You can make a correction; you can print. You can test.”

Thirteen years after his first tinkerings, all the elements came together into what seemed like a solution for a lot of people. Grepper turned to Kickstarter, which “lets you get your idea directly in front of the people who are going to be using your idea,” he says. “They’re voting with their wallet, which is the most honest feedback you can get.”

Kickstarter’s rules say that “physical products must feature explicit demos of working prototypes.” Grepper did this for his first campaign, in late 2013. It didn’t quite make the goal of $125,000, but he did raise more than $100,000 in pledges. That plus encouragement from family, friends, and supporters inspired Grepper to refine and relaunch. And the second campaign was successful — raising a record $13.2 million.

Grepper then worked with an industrial design firm in Ohio to do a lot of rapid iteration on the final design, exchanging 3D printable .STL files over the Internet. “The portable party disguised as a cooler” incorporates music, food, drink, storage, and clean up.

On its journey from unused weed whacker and broken cooler to crowdfunded success, the Coolest is the story of a big need, an inspired idea, and the tools that made it happen.

“The promise of 3D printing,” says Grepper, “is that you can get your own Coolest idea out there.”