At the age of five, David Yakos’ mom had an instinct about her son’s love for inventing and design. Because of his love for tinkering, she knew he needed space. So, she took an old dryer box, shoved it in the corner and filled it with empty soda bottles, popsicle sticks, and other recycled items and called it “David’s Creative Corner.”
And just like that, a future inventor was inspired.
Today, David Yakos is the Co-Owner, Director of Creativity, Mad-Scientist, and Inventor Extraordinaire of Salient Technologies, a Montana-based product development firm that has invented everything from rocket fuel valves to pediatric wheelchairs. Yakos is a big believer in the creative process and encouraging kids to learn by experimenting, playing, creating messes, and even failing.
The lines between his work and home lives are a constant blur as he continually blends play and inventing on a daily basis.
Raising Nerd recently sat down with this adventurous inventor to understand how a life of play and creativity could inspire others.
RN: Tell us a little bit about your background.
David Yakos (DY): I’m a mechanical engineer from Montana State. Since graduating, I’ve lived in seven states and three countries. I’ve been fortunate to have different environments around me, and they’ve all been great inspiration for my creativity. Currently, I live in a log cabin on eight acres with my four kids and wife.
After college, I worked five years as a guide on International Expedition for students. We traveled to different countries, creating adventures coupled with service projects. It was a very different kind of education and I probably learned more there than I would have after months in a classroom.
RN: Has that experience influenced how you raise your own kids?
DY: Absolutely! We try to take the kids on our own adventures to inspire them. We just took a month in Asia, going through Thailand. A classroom can’t even compare to the experience and life lessons they get when attending a lantern festival or riding an elephant or petting a crocodile. If you are not living in a space that is inspiring all the time, life will get boring.
RN: You purchased Salient nearly 10 years ago. Tell us about your company and how it’s different.
DY: Salient is a unique place where artists and engineering collide. Many engineering firms like to crunch numbers. That wasn’t really what got us excited.
We were doing some limited product design when we purchased the company but we really wanted to focus the business on developing product lines for leading brands & startups. Last year, we developed 135 products – from pediatric wheelchairs to vacuum coffee cups to baby bottles. It’s a terrific mix of industries and target audiences. Stephen Sanford, my business partner, is a necessary compliment for my imaginative side. He brings a deep well of technical aptitude knowing eventually the idea needs to be manufactured. Collectively, our entire team spans the gap from artistic inspiration to manufacturing expertise.
Now that we have this creative machine, we can look at gaps in the marketplace and dream and say “Wouldn’t it be great if… “ or “I would like one of these…” If it’s something we want, maybe someone else would want it, as well. So, as we created these wonderful products, we started licensing them out to brand-name companies.
RN: Every year, you go out with a group of creative people and tackle amazing challenges through a program called Hatch. Tell us about that.
DY: Yarrow Kraner is the founder of Hatch. He also was the creator of Superdudes, an online social platform to get people to do good in their own communities. For every good deed, they would get points for community service. That blew up, bringing together lots of users. Eventually, it got bought out by Fox with MySpace. We wanted to create a real-life version of Super Dudes where we could gather people together for global good.
We found that, ultimately, people want to feel they have purpose in their own vocation. So, with Hatch, we try to align a person’s ability and skills with a purpose and move towards real goals that matter. Typically, we host different types of workshops that start with the key question “What keeps you up at night?” From there, we have a lot of inspirational talks. Not like TED talks, but more of expressing what we’re feeling at that moment. The funny thing is, the real work and conversation happens in the white space around the campfire. That’s where the real magic happens.
RN: Can you give us an example of something really inspiring that’s come out of Hatch?
DY: ThinkFun’s Maker Studio came out of one of those fireside chats with my co-inventor, Parker Thomas. It all started with trying to figure out how to make some engineering kits that could inspire kids to play.
RN: What happens when everyone goes home? After the fireside chats?
DY: It’s a pretty tight community and we are in pretty good communication together. We really try to set up guidelines to get people to follow-through so that our progress and inspiration isn’t just left by the fire pit.
RN: What excites you about your work?
DY: We jump from an idea to production. It’s truly an amazing experience to extract a new idea that pops into your head and then, hours later, have it in your hands. The design cycle has shrunk so small that you can turn out ideas for presentation daily. That’s what excites me.
RN: How do you keep the creative juices flowing at the office?
DY: We make it a safe place to fail. Not everybody is an artist. But everyone can be creative.
I don’t think the world is lacking in head knowledge. You can get always get the answer. Just ask Siri, right? Where companies, and families for that matter, are lacking is in creative thought process. That type of play or lifestyle encourages that thought process. You may not always know the answer to a problem, but you know the process of how to prototype your way to an answer. It may not be physical but perhaps in chemistry, music, or whatever. If you look at things through a different lens, you’re bound to find unique answers. That eclectic background will influence you. I’ve worked on NASA space valves and toy race tracks, so I ask different questions than I would if I was pigeon-holed into a single industry.
RN: What hands-on learning resources would you recommend for parents looking to inspire and challenge their preschool, elementary, middle, and high school kids? How about for parents of not-quite-there-yet Nerds?
DY: Give them a pile of nails and a hammer. There’s no shortage of apps for kids. Give them physical play. One of my favorite books when I was younger was The Way Things Work by David McCully. That was fascinating. Learning how everything from a microchip to a car to a watch works. It was magical.
RN: Who were your early influences/mentors? How did they encourage you to pursue this kind of career?
DY: Leonardo da Vinci. From drawing to inventions, he was ahead of his time. Whenever I’d see something that looked like da Vinci, it just drew me in. It’s what inspired me to paint and invent.
RN: Are you raising your kids the same way you were raised?
DY: My dad was against video games growing up but we got a chance to buy our first Nintendo in high school. We weren’t much into Tech growing up as we were more about exploring and adventures. Think The Goonies and Stand By Me.
My kids play video games because I love them. We play a bit of Minecraft because it really is cooperative play. It allows us to build together and it’s become a wonderful tool, but needs to be used appropriately.
I’m looking at my kids and their personalities are so different from each other. They will all land in different spaces and have their own unique careers and interests. I’m not sure if they’ll end up in engineering or design but I encourage it as much as I can.
RN: Do you ever take the opposite approach to inventing and rip or destroy something instead?
DY: Destroy is the wrong word. We always called it “fixing.” Whenever we have something that’s old, we hand it to the kids to “fix” it. They take it apart – computer monitor, toaster, whatever.
RN: Knowing that you are enthusiastic about creativity, how do you keep yourself from taking over the kids projects?
I suppose I don’t take it all too seriously. I have my projects and my kids have theirs. I give them ownership and let them build it and make it. I give them space and let them at it! It’s amazing how many hours fixing an old television or stereo can take.
RN: Tell us about your latest invention.
DY: Lionel Mega Tracks is my latest. It’s been a dream project for me to reinvent racetrack play. Throughout the process, we built hundreds of feet of track and used a 3D Printer, vacuum former and laser-cutter to make the cars. We set it up around the office – out the window, up the stairs, everywhere. It was fantastic!
One day, my family rolled in, and I wanted to show them our progress. I love getting a reaction from my kids, so I sent the car zipping through the loft and forgot that the team had already started disassembling part of the course. I shouted out for someone to stop and grab the prototype, but it was too late. The car flew off the track and smashed into a thousand pieces. It was an amazing thing to watch and fortunately we had already gotten all the video we needed.
RN: How do you encourage your own kids, the kids of an inventor, to be creative?
I think it’s important to always remember that it’s ok to be messy. People are always trying to make a house and forget that it is a home. Homes get messy. Create an environment where that is okay. I came from a family of five kids and we couldn’t have been more different. My mom recognized that and encouraged me to invent and create.
My dad saw it as well and helped direct me into that space. We called it crafting back then. Today, the cool word is “maker.” It’s a little part of our DNA and we’ve somehow forgotten how to do it. We became consumers vs. makers. I would encourage parents to give their kids a creative corner or a designated space to be messy and create. Give them an idea journal where they can come up with crazy ideas. The first step to creating is always writing or drawing it.
Creating an environment that allows kids to exercise that part of the brain and make things with their hands is key!