PHILADELPHIA -- By way of introduction to his offices in Villanova, Edmond Dougherty stops at a desk cluttered with gadgets: various shapes of plastic, a model quadcopter, a linear induction motor and squares of foam sandwiched by metal film.
"It's almost like an island of broken toys," said the president of Ablaze Development Corp.
Except that it's all for serious business -- for clients ranging from the U.S. military to a variety of private companies.
Well, as serious as a guy who wanted to be a stand-up comic is willing to let his workday be.
"I figured the best moment in someone's life was when they laughed, so I wanted to make people happy," explained Dougherty.
His mother didn't support that career plan and, "knowing that I hated cigarette smoke, explained that I would have to work in smoky nightclubs for years," recalled Dougherty, now all grown up at 64. "So that made me look in other areas -- like technology. So I took apart her washing machine."
And that's how a funny man became an electrical engineer running a company whose tag line is "Igniting your ideas." Or as Dougherty likes to say, "We make dreams come true."
By that, he means proof-of-principle prototypes -- essentially, models demonstrating the feasibility of an idea.
"After that, I get bored, and it goes off to someone else" to actually develop the product for use, Dougherty said.
Among his satisfied clients is William Crowder, director of logistic services and future technologies for Logistics Management Institute in McLean, Va. He has been taking his prototype needs to Dougherty since the early 1990s, when Crowder was chief of strategic mobility for the U.S. Army at the Pentagon and Dougherty came up with a unique concept for offloading ships in the open ocean.
"When I have a hard problem and I'm trying to figure out 'How the heck do you solve this, how do you make this real?' I always think of Ed," Crowder said. "He's one of the most creative minds I'm aware of."
Dougherty runs Ablaze with the company's only other full-time employee, son E.J. (both are Villanova University graduates and professors there), and he is the first to acknowledge that focusing only on prototypes limits earnings.
His customers join the chorus.
"If he'd kept the intellectual property rights on a few things, he could have made a lot of money," said one of Dougherty's longtime clients, Ed Savacool, president of Enterprise Management Systems in Manassas, Va. Ablaze is "unique in the sense that they truly are about creating a prototype or a design," Savacool said, "and they don't worry about the long-term production."
It's the boredom issue, Dougherty said unapologetically: "If I were a wiser businessperson, I probably would have followed the money, but I would have gone insane."
Instead, once he achieves a functioning prototype, his thoughts go to, "OK. What's next?"
There have been a lot of "nexts" after that washing-machine disassembly -- and, to his mother's relief, reassembly.
But first, there were a couple of years at Ford Motor Co. designing envelope-scanning systems for the U.S. Postal Service. That was followed by 13 years at the Franklin Institute Research Lab, where Dougherty worked on things as intense as drug-detection devices and as novel as whether a change in manufacturing of Major League baseballs was behind a deterioration one year in Phillies ace Steve Carlton's pitching.
When the lab was sold off, Dougherty co-founded August Design Inc., a company that continued to do the type of work he was doing at the Franklin Institute, along with development of prototypes -- including several enhancements for cinematographer Garrett Brown's now-famous Skycam, most familiar for zooming along cables inside stadiums, to provide up-close views of sports action.
By 2004, August Design had merged with a number of other companies and had grown to 160 employees throughout the United States and abroad -- too big for Dougherty's liking. He and his partners sold the company to TransCore, manufacturers of radio-frequency identification systems for the transportation industry.
For the next two years, Dougherty honored a noncompete agreement with TransCore and essentially shelved his design work. He returned to Villanova and helped create an academic program that blends two of his passions: engineering and entrepreneurship.
Naturally, he got "itchy" for design work and formed Ablaze in 2005 with a slight twist on August Design. With Ablaze, Dougherty wanted not only to do project work for others, but also "to make some of our own come true."
Dougherty said he has a list of 60 to 70 ideas. He hopes to secure $1 million to develop his own idea for an elevator designed to work much like a Pez dispenser to more efficiently unload cargo ships.
Ablaze also is working on a way to market to U.S. consumers eyeglasses made with oil-filled lenses whose prescription the wearer adjusts by turning knobs on each corner of the frames. Their inventor in England created them for developing countries where optometrists are scarce. Dougherty thinks there should be a pair in every U.S. car and toolbox.