Like most parking lots, the one outside downtown's Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator is flat and fairly vast — a skateboarder's dream of a canvas. David Patrick, 48, looks at ease as he glides along the smooth concrete, drifting his longboard in a gentle left and right zag. “I just love riding around on my own wheels,” Patrick says.
That possessive — “my own wheels” — isn't just a sign of ownership. These aren't wheels Patrick purchased; they're ones he invented, and they could revolutionize everything people do on wheels, whether it's cruising on a skateboard or traversing the desert in times of war.
Their appeal becomes clear when, with a quick turn to the left, Patrick finds himself facing a crack in the lot, with tufts of grass and pieces of loose gravel. While this uneven terrain would be enough to make any rider flinch, Patrick tackles the patch, clearing it effortlessly. Stopping the board and picking it up, Patrick announces, “See, that's the benefit of the Shark Wheel.”
In motion, Patrick's creations look like rolling orbs, but at rest, with two thick grooves snaking their way around each one and curved edges that waver up and down as they spin, they look more like something that fell off a children's toy than functional wheels. They aren't even round. Not only has Patrick reinvented the wheel — a big no-no in the world of idioms — he has reinvented the wheel so it's modeled after a cube.
Like so many things in his life, Patrick owes the invention to an accident. Make that a series of accidents. He stumbled across this rolling cube/sphere while working on a turbine, which he also accidentally invented. The basic shape of Patrick's turbine is four of the “wheel” shapes put together. Patrick's original idea did not include the groove, but his computer accidentally doubled the wheel — sticking two together — which created the Shark Wheel's signature groove.
If that's not a long enough list of happy accidents, Patrick also accidentally fell into his line of work and accidentally had twins.
“I am the luckiest guy in the world,” he says. “I never thought I was making a wheel, or anything like that. I had been using the shape on the turbine for, like, six years and never realized it was a wheel. But, at some point, we dropped it on the ground and realized it rolled. And then I rolled it for years. I showed people 100 times just to show them how freaky it was, like, 'Hey, this thing is a cube and it rolls,' but it meant nothing to me. It wasn't going to be a product. It wasn't going to be anything.”
The wheel morphed from Patrick's bizarre party trick into a potential product when business partner Zack Fleishman, a 33-year-old former pro tennis player, realized that the wheel's snakelike grooves give it more traction than a standard circle. Wheels grip the ground with their edges, but the traditional wheel has only one lip for gripping, making it all too easy for a boarder to go flying. With its grooved-wave design, the Shark Wheel adds two more lips — and significantly more traction.
The grip is only one of the ways Patrick says his wheel improves on the traditional design. The groove dug out of the Shark Wheel means that as it spins, less material touches the ground, creating less surface tension — which allows a faster spin. The groove also pushes debris out of the way, so that instead of tanking over pebbles and grass, the wheel pushes them to the side. The result? The Shark Wheel easily rolls on both hard and soft surfaces, with a fluid spin over uneven pavement.
But Patrick is less concerned about explaining why the wheels work and is more interested in letting riders feel the benefits. “Something about the way the wheel is designed matters. I don't know why. I don't understand the physics behind it,” he says. “In the skateboard world, nobody cares — it's about feel. They don't want to see a spreadsheet on it.”
For an inventor, Patrick is shockingly uninterested in math — he prefers to play with shapes and feel them in his hands than move numbers around on a chalkboard. The yin to Patrick's yang, chief financial officer Fleishman is the left brain of the Shark Wheel operation. Both college dropouts, Patrick from Orange Coast College and Fleishman from UCLA, the two men aren't exactly your standard mad scientists with diploma-lined walls.
Patrick's insight into a skateboarder's mind comes naturally: He started boarding as a little kid growing up in Orange County, and his obsession with the sport led to his initial idea to put his wheels on a skateboard. But he's not stopping here. With the theory that their product truly outperforms the original wheel, Patrick and Fleishman plan to expand into other corners of the wheel market. Their first stop? Strollers.
“Mothers are always pushing their strollers through grass and then going back to hard surfaces. The No. 1 problem for mothers is that the strollers go into the stuff and the kid [topples] over,” explains Patrick, who, as a father of four, is an experienced stroller pusher. “We're the solution for that. We're a great, really elegant solution for that.”
Because they have the same size-5-inch wheel as the stroller, Patrick and Fleishman then plan to infiltrate the grocery-cart market. Then probably luggage wheels and lawn equipment. But in the meantime, the two men are getting offers from outside companies. They're hoping to talk to a military contractor about using their design in the new Humvee, Fleishman says. And what about dirt bikes and dune buggies?
To date, Shark Wheel is mostly self-funded, with the support of a few small investors. An online Kickstarter campaign promised donors Shark Wheel products: wheels, T-shirts, posters and skateboards. By its close on July 7, Shark Wheel had raked in just south of $80,000 — eight times its original goal — with more than 1,000 investors.
After the eight-employee company fills the orders placed through its Kickstarter, the first sets of wheels will be available for public purchase in October. Shark Wheels will fit onto any standard longboard or skateboard and can be attached to any pre-existing deck. A set of longboard wheels will retail for $59.95; skateboard wheels, about $45.
Soon after their release, Patrick and Fleishman predict that Shark Wheels will be popping up in skate shops all around the country.
“We will own Christmas,” Patrick declares.
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Twitter:
Follow Public Spectacle on Facebook