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"Besides a Great Idea, an Inventor Can Use a Patent on Patience;
Clever gadgets are the products not just of imagination
but also of elusive financing"

The Los Angeles Times; Los Angeles, Calif.; Oct 1, 2002; J. MICHAEL KENNEDY


We thought the following article from the L.A. Times would be interesting reading for most inventors. The road from conception of an idea to profitable commercialization is long, tedious and expensive but for a very small percentage of inventors it can become reality. In another newsletter, we will outline the characteristics of successful products and the way to determine objectively if your invention has them.

Back in 1983, John Picone had an inventive idea. If the electric screwdriver was such a big hit, why not an electric wrench?

At the time, Picone was working as a machinist, a major plus in creating gizmos from scratch. Armed with his metalworking skills, he set to work building the world's first electrically powered adjustable wrench. By 1985, he had the wrench and the patent to go with it.

And therein lies one of the more vexing aspects of invention. When Picone, of Oceanside, N.Y., conceived his wrench idea, he was a young man. Only now, after almost 20 years of failed efforts to attract funding, is his dream of marketing it coming true.

His big break came when his wrench was the 1999 grand prize winner of Hammacher Schlemmer's Search for Invention contest, which netted him a cool $5,000 and enough buzz about his product to allow him to move forward and attract financing for his own manufacturing facility. His prototype was a hit at a recent national hardware convention. "I could have sold a thousand of them," said Picone of his $39.99 wrench, which grips a bolt with the flick of a battery- powered switch.

The wrench will soon be an item in the famed Hammacher Schlemmer catalog--the oldest in the United States and one that specializes in high-end gadgetry.

Picone's long road to recognition is nothing new. In fact, for inventors it's the norm. Lawrence Udell, the director of the California Invention Center, said that less than 3% of all patents issued earn more money than is spent on development--a figure that can range from a few hundred dollars to millions. And he also said most amateur inventors haven't a clue about how hard it is to move from idea to market. That includes everything from building prototype molds, obtaining patents, finding a manufacturer and, finally, putting the invention on the market.

"I try to discourage more than encourage," said Udell, whose invention center was founded in 1995 at Cal State Hayward. "They think all they've got to do is file for a patent and the world beats a path to their door."

Still, the idea of inventing the next must-have gadget is alluring, hence the popularity of the 9-year-old Hammacher Schlemmer contest. Even with its stringent entry rules, which include already having obtained a patent, the contest has attracted more than 200 entrants this year, with inventions ranging from Space Age pool heaters to global positioning pet trackers.

The catalog company, which has been around for more than 150 years, prides itself on having introduced the first pop-up toaster, electric razor, steam iron, microwave oven and cordless telephone, among other now-common appliances. The winners of this year's contest will be announced Oct. 29 at the company's Chicago store.

"I wish more companies did it," said Joanne Hayes-Rines, the editor of Inventors' Digest, who said the Hammacher Schlemmer contest is a way to spotlight ingenious creations that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Take, for instance, the mashed-potato maker by Carmina O'Connor that was a finalist in last year's contest. She actually went to several stores looking for such a machine before finally realizing that one did not exist. So she decided to make one herself, using parts from other appliances she already owned. Once she concocted a design, albeit a crude one, that would cook and mash (but not peel) potatoes she applied for and received a patent on her machine. That might have been the end of the story were it not for the contest. O'Connor, of Chicago, submitted her idea to Hammacher Schlemmer after receiving a flier in the mail inviting her to enter the invention contest.

When informed she was a semifinalist, she and her sister-in-law stayed up all night piecing together the prototype with a glue gun. Now the potato masher--looking like a cross between a bread machine and a Cuisinart--is in the hands of an engineering company, which is putting together a machine that, with luck, should be on the market in about a year.

"It would be great if we could get it out in time for next Thanksgiving," she said.

One thing about inventors, there are lots of them. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has more than 6 million patents on file. The first U.S. patent ever granted, in 1790, was for potash, an ingredient in fertilizer and soap. In 1999, Patent No. 6,000,000 was granted for the technology used to transfer data from computers to Palm Pilots. Last year, more than 350,000 patent applications were filed. There is even an inventor's hall of fame in Akron, Ohio.

Next month, the U.S. Patent office will bring all living inductees of that hall together for a luncheon at the Library of Congress. They include such diverse inventors as the creators of Scotchgard and the first personal computer. One member is James Fergason, whose liquid crystal displays have revolutionized the world of consumer electronics. He began inventing to supplement his income while working for Westinghouse and now holds more than 140 patents. His view is that most everyone has the capability to invent something.

"My own approach has been to learn as much as I can about things that are not common knowledge and then look at them from a little different direction," he said. "People get in the habit of looking at things in only one way. But if they look at things from a slightly different angle, suddenly it's valuable."

But only valuable if it actually exists. Andy Gibbs, whose Patent Cafe is now compiling all patents ever issued onto a computer data base, said most people think of a useful idea, then never do anything about it. He calls them armchair inventors.

"If you don't bother to search, research, develop, invest and learn the inventing process, you will forever remain in your armchair," said Gibbs, whose Yuba City company will help evaluate the inventions submitted to Hammacher Schlemmer.

One of the most daunting difficulties for inventors is getting the attention of companies that might manufacture their products. Udell, of the California Invention Center, said part of the reason is that major companies shy away from individual inventors for fear they might later be sued for stealing ideas. But Udell said there are other avenues inventors can use, including hiring a lawyer to initiate the inquiry. Another source for inventors is the Licensing Executive Society, whose members are involved in the various aspects of intellectual property. The society has more than 10,000 members worldwide.

"It's a great way for an inventor to find someone legitimate to evaluate what they've got," Udell said. "It's a way for an inventor to get some help for free."

Udell and others also warn against companies that advertise their ability to take an idea and get it to market. Said Hayes-Rines of Inventors' Digest: "For the most part, these marketing companies do almost nothing to put a product on the market. We need to teach people what to do without spending a lot of money up front."

Brown & Michaels, an Ithaca, N.Y., law firm that specializes in patents and trademarks, has compiled a step-by-step outline of how bogus companies milk thousands of dollars from inventors by simply stringing them along. "We have had many inventors come to our firm over the years who have been taken by these companies," said the report. "The lucky ones only got to the first stage, the unlucky ones lost tens of thousands of dollars."

According to the report, the typical marketing company asks for an upfront fee of as much as $800, then responds to an invention idea with a glowing report that is virtually a form letter. From there, the bills increase dramatically for little or no work.

"My rule is: Don't give up your job and don't dip into family savings," said Udell.

While most inventors don't make it off the ground, some do persevere. One is Ed Dudkowski of Petaluma, Calif., who is about to begin marketing a suitcase-sized device that takes the place of cumbersome editing machines that now have to be trucked to a site. With this device, he can film and edit such things as amateur stage productions, presentations and school programs with a portable control room that weighs 25 pounds. "It's been easier to invent the device than to market it," said Dudkowski. "I've spent the last year writing a business plan and putting a marketing team together."

Another is Mark Publicover, a former contractor from Saratoga, Calif., who designed a contraption to protect children from falling off trampolines. The idea came to him after a neighbor's daughter took a nasty spill from one.

Five years after building his prototype that surrounds a trampoline with netting, Publicover finally turned a profit this year, but not before going through a series of setbacks and more than $1 million, much of that his own money. Now, he sells about 800 trampoline enclosures a day. They sell at various retailers and over the Internet at about $200 apiece. The downside is that he is now embroiled in a lawsuit against companies with similar products.

Publicover said there were moments, especially in the early going, when it seemed as if his invention didn't have a chance. As he put it, "Nobody jumped. Retailers didn't think people would be compelled to buy it." Then, as his funds were running out, Publicover scraped together enough money to place a full-page ad in Disney Magazine. "Suddenly," he said, "the phone was ringing off the hook."