- Associated Press - Friday, May 6, 2016

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - Wichita inventor’s project changing women’s lives

The point of Filimin is “to add beauty to the world,” according to its founder, John Harrison.

The Wichita inventor admits that’s a lofty goal for a plastic desk lamp, but for him, the project goes beyond the plastic.

“The process of assembling it is also adding benefit to our community,” Harrison said. “And on a personal level, it is (adding benefit) for me.”

The Wichita Eagle (http://bit.ly/24u3MCa ) reports that to construct his Wi-Fi-enabled lamps, Harrison employs women in the Wichita Women’s Initiative Network - a mutual partnership, he said.

“It made WIN a lot better,” said Heather Starr, 27, who is in the WIN program. “It made me look forward to something coming to work.”

About a year ago, 227 Kickstarter backers decided Harrison’s Wi-Fi-enabled lamp was a good idea - good enough that they were willing to pitch in $50,897 to get the project started.

The concept behind Filimin: People purchase multiple Filimin lamps that are digitally connected to each other. They are powered by a USB cable, and they connect to Wi-Fi.

You keep one Filimin and give the rest to whomever you want. The lamps glow a certain color, and when they are touched, all of the lamps that are paired together change to the same color.

It’s as simple as that - a sort of 21st-century tin can and string between two houses.

Last year, Harrison had a couple of Filimin prototypes built, but he had no idea how he was going to mass-produce hundreds of the lamps for those backers who already had paid for them.

And more orders were still coming in through Filimin’s website.

Harrison asked Karen Schmidt, executive director of the Wichita Women’s Initiative Network, whether the organization would be willing to take on the project with him.

She said yes.

Before Filimin, WIN - a program that provides support and job training for women coming out of abusive relationships - was stuck in the 1990s, Schmidt said.

The women in the program were sewing pot holders and packing food - skills that have been rendered less useful in today’s workforce, she said.

“We thought this is a perfect way for us to segue into doing things that are more relevant,” Schmidt said. “Really, the Filimin project came along, and it must have been meant to be.”

Programming motherboards and soldering wires together was initially a radical transition for the women in the program, said Schmidt, who began working with Harrison in February.

Soon, though, the women got the hang of it, and now they say they are “becoming masters at it.”

For their first 90 days in the program, the women are paid $7.25 an hour. After successfully completing 90 days, their pay is bumped to $7.60, where it remains for the duration of their stay with WIN.

Harrison said his project also received some much-needed help from MakeICT and its laser cutters.

“I’m going to say this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “This makes grad school look like nothing.”

There are three main components to WIN: job skills, case management and mental health.

Schmidt likes to think working with Filimin helps the women in all three of those areas.

“Not that we necessarily think our women are going to get a job soldering or assembling something, but . they’re learning soft skills they can transfer to the workforce,” she said.

Starr, who has been in the WIN program for about a year, said when Filimin came, it changed things at the organization.

“When you bring the Filimins in, we’re all just working together on one simple thing - everything else is invalid,” Starr said. “It doesn’t matter that she can’t speak English or that she doesn’t believe this, (whatever) her story was. We all just come together and work on something, and that brings us together.

“I think that gives a lot of us hope and meaning.”

Starr said becoming an expert at assembling Filimins has boosted her self-confidence.

“To be privileged and able to work on something such as this and be a part of it, it gives me a lot of motivation and hope, too, because this is not something you do every day,” she said.

Tabitha Young, 31, gives a lot of the credit to Harrison, whom she said she now looks up to as a role model.

“He’s very encouraging, and he makes you see the good in yourself when you thought all was lost,” Young said. “I like coming to work when he’s here, and we get to work on something that’s near and dear to him.”

Harrison said working with the women at WIN has “deepened (him) as a person.”

“I feel like I’ve gotten to know them personally, not just meet them and hear their story,” he said. “I feel like I’ve learned a lot.”

Harrison doesn’t have “a crystal ball” to say what the future has in store for Filimin.

If the project grows and exceeds WIN’s assembling capabilities, he said, that doesn’t mean Filimin will abandon WIN.

“It means we work with them and some other groups as well,” Harrison said. “Working with WIN has really added a whole dimension to the project, and that’s something we want to hold on to.”

Meanwhile, Harrison is working with a Kansas City-based startup incubator, BetaBlox, to develop Filimin further.

Harrison said he is playing catch-up to all the orders he has received in the past year.

Almost everyone who backed him on Kickstarter has received their Filimins, he said, even though he originally promised delivery by Dec. 15, 2015.

“Ninety percent of Kickstarter hardware projects are late, so I’m in good company of being really optimistic and naive about what I’m doing,” he said with a laugh.

He has done no advertising for Filimin - it has grown solely through word-of-mouth, Harrison said.

Now, though, he said he’s considering pitching his product to be sold at places such as hospital gift shops, retirement communities, Hallmark stores and college bookstores.

“I think it can break a lot of barriers of language or culture or generation,” he said. “It’s kind of a naturally viable product.

“My best advertising is happy customers, and that’s really where I’m giving the majority of my focus now.”

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Information from: The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, http://www.kansas.com

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