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Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?

Shopping for get-rich-quick schemes in SoHo.

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Most people don't bring their own ice-cube trays to a cocktail party, but Kim Zonca was taking no chances. Last week, a company called Tristar Products, marketer of the ABSculptor, the Hook 'n Hang, the Eurosealer, and other wildly successful contenders for the "As Seen on TV!" hall of fame, threw a lavish pâté-fest at the SoHo Grand to offer inventors a shortcut to Easy Street. Zonca's "ice stix" tray was, she hoped, her ticket.

Displaying an empty Diet Coke bottle, she plopped in a cylindrical "ice stix" prototype. "See, it fits!" she crowed. "The magic thing is," she added, "you can break this in half and drop it in a can too." In another, slower age, Zonca, a 28-year-old industrial-design student at Pratt, might have gone to her grave, or even reached 30, without seeing her invention make it to the shelves of Wal-Mart. But these days, mass television mints millionaires every day -- without the help of Regis Philbin -- by selling gadgets invented by average Joes via infomercials.

Suspicious types might think this could be a way to defraud naïve creatives of their intellectual riches, but suspicious types might never get a chance at the brass ring. Mark Urgola, inventor of the Outdoor Mate, a beach-carryall-umbrella-stand case, proclaimed his willingness to leave his brainchild in Tristar's lap. "People get rich off 2 percent royalties," he declared. "I've been driving to beaches on the Jersey Shore for years now, and people love this thing. But I need to get it marketed -- I need to take that next step." Tristar representatives stood by, smiling noncommittally. Boris Schneider, the 30-year-old inventor of the Hook 'n Hang multi-shirt hanger, was on hand as a flesh-and-blood bona fide -- a real, live overnight millionaire. He came to this country from Russian Georgia eight years ago and got rich after Tristar put his invention on the air last September. "We love to make millionaires," a Tristar representative confided, "but you'd be surprised that a hanger would take off the way it did. We were all shocked." Boris beamed. In the crowded reception room, with its eighteen-foot-ceilings, round wood-framed mirrors, and easy aura of privilege, hopeful designers circulated amid glitter-and-gauze-covered Tristar displays -- the Banjo Fishing System, the Contour Cloud Pillow. A card asked the diabolical question could your idea be the next hook 'n hang?

The consensus of the crowd was that only one man in the room could truthfully answer "yes": Brett Stern, a cocky but beleaguered middle-aged medical-product designer. A few years ago, Stern invented a way to make clothing without human workers. "The whole garment is molded, and the pieces are ultrasonically sealed," he explained. The U.S. patent office waved it through, but manufacturers rejected it. "I was the Man in the White Suit," Stern says dejectedly, referring to the Alec Guinness comedy in which the inventor of an indestructible cloth is hated and hunted by industry foes.

But this time, he believed, he had an invention that couldn't miss: a leakproof paper-coffee-cup lid. Stern reached into a paper bag and pulled out two cups of diner coffee, one of them dripping with milky brown pools of liquid. The other, sealed by a clean, white plastic lid with a "hydrophobic" center patch, was dry as a bone. It was not a particularly sexy product, but Stern did not care. "They make," he said suggestively, "75 billion coffee-cup lids a year." And suddenly 2 percent began to sound very sexy indeed.


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