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
Los Angeles Times; Los Angeles, Calif.; Oct 1, 2002;
J. MICHAEL KENNEDY
Title: "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"
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
"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
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
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
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
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."