Garthen Leslie

Garthen Leslie's smart air conditioner window unit design was picked up by the company Quirky and General Electric. (Photo by Nate Pesce / April 27, 2014)

Perseverance can indeed pay off. Just ask Garthen Leslie. For years, the 60-year-old Columbia resident has been trying to sell his invention ideas: a skateboard with an odometer and a speedometer, a sensory-equipped life vest for toddlers, and more. He was selling them all, but nobody was buying. 

Until last fall, that is, when his proposal for a "smart" window air conditioner won rave reviews from Quirky, a five-year-old New York City-based company whose stated mission is to "make invention accessible."

Now, six months later and with the help of Quirky and General Electric, Leslie's air conditioner is about to hit the market. And Leslie, who stands to make a tidy sum off of the idea, has made a splash in the world of everyman inventors, appearing on the CBS News Sunday Morning show and elsewhere in the media.

 It's left the unassuming Leslie, a former chief information officer for the Columbia Association, "tickled to death," as he put it.


Sign up to receive our free daily email newsletter: Columbia Today

"The first time I got to see it [a demonstration model], they handed me a phone with my app," he recalled. "I hit the button and looked over and the lights lit up. Then I went over and put my hand on it and sure enough cool air was coming out. That was a great moment for me."

Leslie could be excused for thinking such a moment would never have come.

He worked as a computer programmer before earning an MBA in marketing and MS in computer science and a doctorate in management from the University of Maryland University College. He now works as an independent IT consultant.

 But Leslie has long yearned to be an inventor, and for years has kept a notebook detailing his brainstorms.

 "It's sort of a hobby," he said during an interview in his Gramercy at Town Center apartment. "Coming up with ideas, jotting them down, coming up with more ideas, jotting them down."

He has tried to patent some of those ideas, but the process is difficult and costly, he said, and he had no success.

But one evening, Leslie turned on the "Tonight" show and happened to see Jay Leno talking with Quirky founder Ben Kaufman about how his company helps inventors bring their ideas to fruition. He was intrigued.

"I remember thinking, 'That's kind of where I am. I've got ideas, but I don't know how to bridge that gap,' " he recalled.

He promptly submitted a couple of ideas to Quirky as test runs. Then he submitted his pet project: an app-controlled window air conditioner.

An idea is born

That idea was born last year, when Leslie was driving through Northwest Washington and noticed a profusion of air conditioning units sprouting from apartment windows.

"I thought, 'Wow, those things must be running all day long, they must be costing people a lot of money,' " he recalled. "I started thinking, 'You know, there are smart phones that allow you to control a lot of things. Why couldn't I control that air conditioner with my smart phone?' "

The idea was an instant hit with Quirky. An unusual and growing startup, Quirky fields 2,000-4,000 ideas a week. The company's one million online members vet the ideas, and the most promising ones are built.

"We immediately realized it was an amazing idea," Quirky spokeswoman Alyssa Carroll said. "This was one we definitely moved on quickly."

The idea was put through the usual Quirky process: brainstormed and refined in-house, and then, after it passed all the tests, designed and manufactured. GE, which has a partnership with Quirky, was brought in to help with the engineering and technology.

"He (Leslie) had a very fleshed-out idea," Carroll said. "He's been very involved in the whole process. … He had a very clear vision."

She added: "This is a product we really believe in. … I can't wait to buy one."

The unit, being sold as the Aros Smart Air Conditioner, can be turned on from anywhere via smart phone. It has other high-tech features as well, such as the ability to predict and control your air conditioning costs and to turn itself off and on depending how close or how far you are from home.

While not yet for sale, the invention already has generated a buzz, largely because of the company's promotional push.

"I've heard from a lot of co-workers, gotten calls from as far away as Trinidad," Leslie marveled. "People seem excited. I've been pleasantly surprised by the number of people who've seen it, want to talk about it — professors at different universities wanted me to talk to their students about it."

'Just very exciting'

Among those excited is Leslie's wife, Carol, one of the main people off of whom Leslie bounces his invention ideas.

"He's always tinkering around, coming up with ideas," she said of her husband. "To see one of his ideas come to fruition, it's just very exciting."

 And more than that, almost sure to be profitable — perhaps exceedingly so.

 Under Quirky's guidelines, inventors and others who helped refine and develop the product get 10 percent of the profits, so Leslie's take depends on sales.

But Quirky officials are expecting big sales. Carroll, asked what Leslie might take in, said: "He'll be able to take a nice vacation this year, I can say that."

Quirky founder Kaufman, on CBS News Sunday Morning, had a more specific prediction, saying Leslie could make close to $1 million this year from the Aros Smart Air Conditioner.

The Aros is due to go on sale early this month, and Leslie can't wait.

"That's going to be my next big good feeling about this," he said. "When I look into a store and I see it, and go 'Wow, it's there.' "

But this might not be the end of it for Leslie the inventor.

"I have other ideas and other concepts I'm working on," he said.

Such as?

He smiled. "Nothing I would prefer to talk about at this particular time."