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Better mousetrap builders

How small-time inventors - alone or in clubs - make widgets for fun (and maybe a profit).

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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 Sc√ľnci. She made, she says, about $28 million in 10 years.

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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.

In some parts of the country, growth has been encouraged. The Inventors and Entrepreneurs Club in economically depressed Juneau County, Wisc., got a lift this past summer from a new state microgrant program aimed at boosting a state entrepreneur network launched by the state.

"I had heard about the club and the success it was having," says Pam Christenson, director of the bureau of entrepreneurship at the Wisconsin Department of Commerce. "We may be able to use it as a model for other rural communities."

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