Better mousetrap builders
How small-time inventors - alone or in clubs - make widgets for fun (and maybe a profit).
Mothers of invention have turned up here at the Yankee Invention Exposition in the old Armory. So too have some fathers and grandfathers, and not a few offbeat uncles and aunts.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
They watch for corporate product scouts, venture capitalists, anyone who'll inspect the whiz-bang widgets they have lovingly contrived. Joe and Melissa Sugameli, from Roseville, Mich., show their "Lil' Sleepy Head" restraint, meant to keep babies from slumping in car seats. Tom Knightlinger, from Zebulon, N.C., touts a tiny "Popabrella" that can keep a camera dry. Octogenarian R.P. "Lux" Wilkinson, from Ardmore, Okla., offers fraud-busting checks with photo identification imprinted in their corners.
Mr. Wilkinson is a consulting petrologist by trade. "If you need a drillin' deal," he drawls, "I've got one of those, too."
Meet today's would-be Edisons, the best of whom might land their work on store shelves and in late-night infomercials. America - culture of invention - celebrates these endearingly earnest characters. USA Network's new reality show "Made in the USA" stages inventor competitions, awarding winners with a year on the Home Shopping Network. Jay Leno sent a camera crew to Waterbury last week.
But at its heart this is a participatory game. Some weekend inventors fly solo. Many others now join inventor clubs to share lessons and tactics, gaining group-rate access to patent services. Surprisingly - in what one might imagine is an inherently secretive world - many even talk over specific ideas with peers, and the ideas flow.
Last year the US Patent and Trademark Office granted more than 164,000 "utility" patents - patents for inventions, as opposed to designs and processes. Most went to the IBMs and Matsushitas of the world; the US government scored 800-plus. But more than 16,500 went to small, private inventors. A patent is no guarantee of marketplace success. Simplicity helps. That's reflected in the Waterbury array: a golf-tee dispenser, a fishing-pole holster, a hat with a pocket, a wrist-wrapping cellphone sleeve. "Those types of inventions tend to have a greater chance of being successful than something that you've got to convince Boeing to do," says Stephen Nipper, a patent attorney with Dykas, Shaver & Nipper in Boise, Idaho. "[The best is] something you can make in your garage, then sell or license to somebody who can get it into Wal-Mart."
Fifteen years ago, single mother Lisa Lloyd devised a barrette to keep her hair under control at the Arizona office where she earned $14,000 a year. With her mother's help she developed the "French Twister" device, then licensed it to hair-products giant Scünci. She made, she says, about $28 million in 10 years.
It spawned another outgrowth. "I started getting a lot of phone calls from people who'd read about me," Ms. Lloyd says. "People were asking all the same questions. And we decided we would start a club to help other people." Lloyd launched a Tucson chapter and a year later moved to Phoenix with her husband to start a second.
Today, each branch has two meetings a month, one a public forum at which speakers address issues common to aspiring inventors, the second a closed-door event requiring signed confidentiality agreements.
That's a common arrangement, says Carol Oldenburg, a spokeswoman for the United Inventors Association (UIA) in Rochester, N.Y., founded in the 1970s with seed money from the US Department of Energy as a way of finding great ideas percolating in places other than corporations and universities.
There are about 100 inventor groups around the country known to the UIA, of which about half are UIA members, says Ms. Oldenburg. (For a directory, see www.uiausa.com.) Over the past 15 years, she says, there's "been a bit of growth" of inventor groups nationwide.