He’s taught school, worked as a juvenile probation officer, owned and operated a day care and sold Christmas trees, but no matter his job title, what Emory Clark has always been is an inventor.
“I don’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse,” he said, laughing. “I love to invent, but inventing something and inventing something with commercial value are two different things.”
From flavored popcorn to spring-powered tools, Clark, 78, has had some successful ideas – but it’s a toy he invented for his children that’s poised to become an international hit.
On a family trip to Canada in 1975, they stayed with a friend who’d strung a set of plywood rings on a rope and hung it from his basement ceiling. It reminded Clark of an old-fashioned tire swing.
“The kids just loved it,” Clark recalled.
His friend gave him permission to modify the idea, so when they returned home, Clark added a ball bearing, enabling the rings to spin. Now his kids could swing back and forth, but also spin around on the rings as they clutched the ropes. Even better, he made it big enough for up to four kids at a time. He called it a SwRing.
When he purchased a day care in Coeur d’Alene in 1976, he installed a SwRing there, too.
“It was such a hit the kids didn’t want to go home at night,” he said.
He took his invention to a toy show, but by then, he was excited about a different product – flavored popcorn.
“I’m always on to new ideas,” Clark said. “I came up with a powdered whey product to flavor popcorn.”
He marketed the products, with flavors such as nacho cheese and sour cream and Onion, to local distributors, and for a time you could find his flavors at Playfair Race Course.
Playfair eventually discontinued the product because it tended to stick on people’s fingers.
“It was kind of ahead of its time,” Clark said. “But my kids are pretty lucky. We ate it for years!”
He went on to create Noxon Tools, named for a small Montana town. The spring-powered tool with 18 models became a huge hit on QVC.
Noxon is a palindrome – spelled the same way forward or backward.
“My slogan was ‘Tools may change, but Noxon won’t,’ ” Clark said.
Between 1990 and 2006, he was on QVC 27 times.
“I’d sell $100,000 worth of tools in 10 minutes,” he said. “It was a lot of fun – a great chapter in my life.”
But when his wife got sick with cancer, he sold Noxon to Spring Tools in Spokane Valley.
Clark’s wife recovered and in 2009, Clark reintroduced the SwRing at the Spokane County Interstate Fair.
At the time, it cost him $350 to make, and he sold it for $500. Despite the enthusiasm of excited kids who tried it, he only got a couple orders.
“It’s a pretty narrow market,” he said.
However, he noticed a woman intently observing the children at play.
“She watched them for over an hour, and then came up and told me she wanted to order one for her pediatric clinic,” Clark said.
It turns out what he built as a fun toy for his kids has valuable therapeutic benefits for children with autism. Though several area day cares have installed SwRings, pediatric clinics now make up 95 percent of sales nationwide.
“Children with autism have difficulties with proprioception,” Clark said. “The movement of the SwRing (circles, double circles, revolving and swaying) helps them get a better notion of their body in relation to space.”
In addition, kids on the autism spectrum often experience social difficulties, and the SwRing works better when more than one child uses it.
“The child is rewarded for playing with others,” Clark said.
Clark funds his inventions by selling Christmas trees from his wholesale business, High Country Nursery. Last year, he sold enough trees to pay for a trip to the International Conference for Assistive Technology in Las Vegas.
That’s where the SwRing was discovered by Clare Martin, from Australia, who invited him to introduce his invention at a similar show in her country.
Clark agreed, and by September his product was licensed in Australia, where manufacturing plans are in the works. He said Martin hopes to tap into the European market as well.
Meanwhile, Clark plans to begin using plastic to manufacture SwRings, which will bring the price point down considerably.
Yet he’s not resting on his laurels or even considering retirement.
“Not a day goes by that I’m not inventing something,” he said.
He’s already secured provisional patents for two new products that will soon be heading to the market.
“But what makes me happiest right now is that every day kids are using SwRings in therapy, and getting joy out of them,” Clark said. “I feel great to be a part of that.”