CHAMPAIGN — It didn't take long for Brett Walker to realize his product is a smash.
Walker, the co-founder and CEO of Electroninks Inc., launched a Kickstarter campaign Nov. 20 to raise $85,000 to help finance the production of Circuit Scribe, a pen that can create electrical circuits.
The campaign was to run through Dec. 31, or roughly 40 days. As of Thursday morning — only 15 days into the campaign — members of the public had pledged $451,698 for Circuit Scribe.
"It definitely was surprising," Walker said last week. "I felt like we could exceed the low six figures by the end of the campaign. But we're already close to a half-million dollars."
Circuit Scribe is a roller ball pen that dispenses conductive silver ink. People can use it to design electrical circuits on surfaces as simple as notebook paper.
Walker credits the enthusiastic response it has received to STEM educators — those who teach science, technology, engineering and math — and the "maker" community — do-it-yourselfers who like working in technologies such as electronics, robotics and 3-D printing.
As part of the Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign, Electroninks is offering the pen to those who pledge $20 or more.
For those who pledge $30 or more, the company offers basic kits that include the pen, two coin batteries, a slide switch, two LED boards and other accessories.
More sophisticated kits are available at higher levels of pledging, and a gift pack of five pens is provided to those pledging $90 or more.
As of Thursday morning, 8,665 people had pledged at one level or another to Circuit Scribe.
Walker is confident Electroninks — based in the EnterpriseWorks business incubator at the University of Illinois Research Park — can handle the demand.
"I feel like we have a plan in place to take care of that," he said.
Electroninks grew out of work done in the lab of Jennifer Lewis, a former UI materials science professor now at Harvard. Walker worked in that lab while completing his doctorate, as did Analisa Russo, the company's director of STEM outreach and product development.
The main focus of Electroninks is developing reactive silver ink, primarily for the printed electronics market but also for the biomedical field.
The ink can be used not only for electronic circuits, but also in producing electrodes for pacemakers and diagnostic glucose sensors.
But thanks to Russo's work in developing the pen, the company also has a product for the consumer market.
Walker said conductive pens are commercially available, but they are "shake-and-squeeze" pens, the tips of which have to be depressed to deposit the ink.
"It's not a fun experience," he said.
Circuit Scribe will be the first commercially available conductive roller ball pen, he said.
With it and accompanying kit materials, students can design sliding switches, proximity sensors and buzzer components, among other things.
Walker said he is working with a contract manufacturer to fill pens with ink specially developed for the instruments. He has set June 2014 as the delivery date for those ordering pens through Kickstarter.
He's also working with distributors to reach STEM educators and retail stores, including educational supply stores.
By the third and fourth quarters of 2014, Walker said he would like to see Circuit Scribe on store shelves and in classrooms — but confesses that time frame may be "a bit optimistic."
With the company ramping up for production, Walker knows he will need to expand staff. Right now, he's the company's only full-time employee, but Russo — currently a visiting fellow at Harvard — is expected to return to complete her doctorate this spring.
Walker figures he'll also need scientists for research and development, as well as professionals in business development and accounting.
Eventually, Walker would like to introduce Circuit Scribe Pro, a version for professionals. But that will have to wait — he doesn't want to dilute demand for the disposable version, because huge orders are needed to make manufacturing possible.
Walker said 3 billion disposable pens are sold in the U.S. each year, so pen makers need to produce batches on the order of tens and hundreds of millions.
The prototype pens are Sakura Gelly Roll Metallic pens that Electroninks hand-filled with conductive silver ink.
The ink had to be modified for use in the pen, Walker said, by changing the polymer content to make the ink more conductive and changing the solvent ratio so the ink would dry quickly at room temperature.
The Sakura pen was chosen for the prototype because it was easy to use, the most reliable and had "the least clogging issues," Walker said.
He credited much of the success of the Kickstarter campaign to an online video developed for Electroninks by Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Pitchslap.
What it is: Roller ball pen that writes with conductive silver ink
What it can do: Create functioning circuits instantly
How much it costs: A $20 pledge to Circuit Scribe's Kickstarter campaign. Kits, including pens and circuit-building accessories, are available for larger pledges. June 2014 is the projected delivery date.
Who sells it: Electroninks Inc., a start-up company based in Champaign that uses technology developed at the University of Illinois (http://www.electroninks.com)
Kickstarter campaign web page: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/electroninks/circuit-scribe-draw-circuits-instantly