In January 2005, Sandusky and O’Neill began making the rounds at large sporting goods companies. Their first face-to-face with Spalding was in March. According to Sandusky, the Spalding team, led by Creelman and Touhey, took a different approach to outside innovations than other sports equipment makers. “The other guys tried to trick us into telling them what we were doing, or they read the patent literature and they told me what we were doing with our technology,” Sandusky says. “Spalding had a mature approach and emphasized the potential business fit.”
Professor Henry Chesbrough, of UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and author of the widely-read Open Innovation, lauds Spalding for seeing how a small entrepreneurial organization like Primo would complement its own larger R&D capabilities. “There aren’t necessarily large economies of scale in early-stage R&D,” says Chesbrough. “To build potential prototypes of solutions, you don’t need an army of people.”
Indeed, several blockbuster products have traced their origins to small outfits with a primitive prototype, who then finagled meetings with an industry giant, Chesbrough says. He cites Procter & Gamble’s $5 battery-powered SpinBrush, which was created by a four-person team. Chesbrough calls it a “natural division of innovation labor,” explaining that “the big players bring skills most small companies don’t have: the ability to bring the product through the R&D process into the market at scale.”
The Spalding-Primo partnership fit that model. Once the two companies began working together in earnest in spring 2005, they set an ambitious goal: a full rollout by the Christmas holiday shopping season. Neverflat became Spalding’s top development priority. Whenever the project hit a bump, it immediately received extra resources from R&D, sourcing, marketing, and other departments.
The new ball actually represents a common sense re-engineering of the old-fashioned basketball, which, before the Infusion ball, hadn’t received much attention since someone got the bright idea to remove its external laces decades ago. Primo’s design team attacked air loss in two main ways. First, they fought air leakage from the ball’s rubber valve by including a removable plug. “The hole in the valve is tiny, but it looks huge to air molecules,” says Sandusky. The plug also prevents grit from getting into the valve and aggravating the loss of air. Next, they tackled the tendency for air to escape through solid membranes, by reducing the porosity of the ball’s internal bladder using new materials.
And Primo even changed the air inside the ball itself. One of Neverflat’s “secrets” is a gaseous concoction called NitroFlate. Air seeping out of a basketball’s membrane is like sand running through the tiny hole connecting the chambers of an hourglass. The sand particles run fairly quickly through the hole because they’re relatively uniform; introducing different-sized particles slows down the process. Spalding and Primo blended a mix of large and small gas molecules into NitroFlate, jamming up the exits around the inner membrane’s pores. “It’s a real ‘dog’s breakfast’ in there,” says Sandusky.