Meet the inventor who cruises Downtown's streets with inspiration and anger
Nathan Overby has been a fixture Downtown for more than a decade. On warm days, he rides his "stand-up bike" with its patented pumping system. When the weather's cold, Overby straps the 50-pound steel contraption to the back of his blue 1983 Chevy Caprice and cruises the Central Business District.
He said some who see him on the street like the bike, while others, such as local bike messengers, heckle him.
The stand-up bike is not Overby's only invention. He's come up with a half-dozen, at least, in the past 16 years.
"I found out what I wanted to do in life is make things," Overby said.
But Overby has never made a dime on his inventions - the cane light, the ski chute, the ice machine, the push scooter. According to Overby, the road has been paved with empty promises and stolen ideas. Cost has also been an obstacle, for materials, production, marketing, legal advice and patents, which Overby has on two inventions.
So why is the 51-year-old drywaller still out there, pumping away through the streets of Downtown?
"I'm mad at getting ripped off," Overby said.
More than that, he's confident that someone will see his creations as more than a curiosity.
"I'm not going to make anything else until I get some money," Overby said.
Now, he may have an investor.
"It all started with the dog light," said Overby as he rooted through a worn grocery bag full of documents, drawings, news clippings and business cards - a summary of a decade and a half of inventing.
"I 'couldn't see my dog at night," he explained.
The first prototype in 1989 consisted of Christmas lights and a nine-volt battery attached to his poodle Coco's collar.
He improved upon that design and found partners to help him produce and sell the collar.
Seven months later, the Protect-a-Pet Flashing Collar was on the market. The tube-light item is $14.99 on petsmart.com.
Just one problem: it's not his. Overby is certain his partners stole and sold his idea.
Overby said the same thing happened with the cane light, for finding your way in the dark. He saw it for sale a decade later.
Overby discounts the possibility that someone else came up with the same ideas independently.
"No," he said firmly. "It's too coincidental."
An early-model stand-up bike was also stolen - off the back of Overby's car. So far, the design has not appeared on the market, but Overby now locks the new model more securely.
That same year, Overby said he showed his stand-up bike to Scott Olson, the Wayzata-based inventor of Rollerblades. Olson employed Overby to help market the row-bike that Olson was developing, said Overby. Overby rode the row-bike around and showed it to potential partners and parts suppliers - the same sort of "direct marketing" he's now doing on his own.
At the same time, Overby was inventing the "ice machine," a recumbent vehicle with a chain-equipped wheel and sled-like blades, designed for ice-riding.
Overby said Olson and another partner were interested in marketing the ice machine and even made drawings of the prototype. But the machine itself - still the only one of its kind - is in his garage.
Olson was happy to promote Overby.
"He gets a bad rap," Olson said. "Most inventors do if they have goofy idea. That's what they used to think of my ideas."
Olson said he opened some doors for Overby, and he likes his ideas. "It's not too far off from what I'm doing," said Olson, adding that he "got lucky" with his ideas. He talked about the risk inventors take.
"Inventors usually spend so much money getting idea up, and they might not have the background or experience to negotiate with the people that have the money, and they can end up getting taken," Olson said.
Patent for sale
In those early days, Overby said he entered into some agreements and contracts - even hired legal help - but did not have the money to defend his creations or market them himself.
Overby lacked something else on his early ideas: a patent.
He now has two: one for the bike's pumping system and a 1995 "box provisional" patent for the "ski-chute," which looks like a cross between a parachute and a hang-glider. (The box provisional patent offers less protection but proves he designed it, Overby said.)
The pumping system is three cylindrical shafts made with inch-diameter clutch bearings. The bearings turn a shaft and drive the chain when pedaled.
The pumping system gives the stand-up bike its go. It works like a stair-stepper, but allows the rider to give the desired force to propel forward, or to rest between steps.
Overby looks quite comfortable leaning on the padded armrests as he glides on his invention. He said it's a great workout bike, a fun to ride and fast, depending on the gear and strength of the rider. And it's just a rough prototype, he pointed out.
Some, even little kids, find it easy to ride, he said. Others - including at least one bike-savvy reporter - find the heavy machine harder to operate.
For much of the year, the stand-up bike is strapped to Overby's car, a sort of mobile display for the Downtown market. He 'doesn't know how much he spends on gas - probably a lot, he said.
The car also displays copies of his patents, and a marketing poster for the ski chute.
The chute fans out behind a skier like a parachute, attached at the boots and coming over the head like a billowing hood. The skier holds onto a bar at chest level, which allows them to turn and control their speed, said Overby, who has skied since he was young.
Overby calls the chute security, like a windbreak. "You can feel it supporting you, holding you up."
He's taken it on the slopes, and he says people like the idea.
This spring, Overby got a call from Pete Ouellette. The Colorado businessman met Overby a couple years ago as the inventor rode his stand-up bike near the Minneapolis Convention Center. Now, Ouellette is partnering with "some people with cash" to help people like Overby market their inventions.
"Once you see [the stand-up bike], you don't forget it," Ouellette said.
He added that Overby would retain the patent, and the company - yet to be named - would "get it to market" and share in the sales.
Ouellette sees the stand-up bike appealing to "sports enthusiasts looking for a change.
"So many people are tuned into the exercise mode," he said. "The stair-stepper has gotten popular - [the stand-up bike] allows exercise at the same time."
Ouellette and Overby have just begun talking. The next step: a video so other investors can see the bike in action.
Meanwhile, Overby is still on the streets, taking his creations to the people.
"'They're simple," Overby said. "You 'don't have to be an engineer; you 'don't have to be an artist. 'I've got thousands of drawings of stuff at home."
So 'what's his next invention?
"You want me to tell you my idea?" he says smiling.
"'I've got a great machine I want to make."