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Better mousetrap builders

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

(Page 3 of 3)

Most inventors don't set out to save local economies, but to solve little problems. Mr. Knightlinger devised Popabrella after seeing whale-watchers in Alaska struggle to keep their camcorders dry.

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Along the way, some look for company. "You just have to have the interest, energy, and commitment of a few people to pull a club together," says Oldenburg. "For some, it's about giving back so other inventors don't have to go through the hardships they've gone through. The [larger] focus is how to develop an idea"

Groups around the country are usually led by men, she says, often in their 50s, 60s, or 70s. Labor statistics show remarkable growth among older entrepreneurs - not all of them inventors, to be sure. The number of self-employed Americans 65 and older has grown 18 percent since 2000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But club participation crosses all ages and demographics. "We have extraordinary young to middle-age business people," says Lloyd. "The seniors are definitely more clubbers. They love the relationships they develop, they love the energy that develops at meetings when they're brainstorming."

That energy can also offset the concern many new members have about working with a group, says Bob Hausslein, president of the Inventors' Association of New England in Lexington, Mass.

Four years ago, Mr. Hausslein's club started a closed meeting called the Inventors' Clinic. To its standard individual nondisclosure forms it added documents ensuring that any improvements or modifications to an idea that arose in group discussions remained the sole property of the inventor. "Now they can feel that they don't have to worry," says Hausslein, who calls such concern "overrated." "Bad guys knock off proven products, not somebody's [formative] ideas, for the most part."

He adds that rushing to patent is not the answer. "We tell people: 'Don't run out and get a patent too early, because your idea's going to develop a lot as you get feedback, try out models,' " Hausslein says. Club input, he says, can also quash a not-so-hot idea before an inventor has become too vested and moved into defensive mode.

Attorney Nipper encourages other kinds of outreach. "If [inventors] try to go it alone, and they try to do their own marketing and advertising, and their own engineering and legal work, then they're typically not going to be as successful as someone who went out and got the help they needed," he says.

At least one young mother of invention understands. "It was good to hear other inventors describe how they developed their prototypes," says Ms. Sugameli, who belongs to a club in Flint, Mich. She and her husband, Joseph, went through 15 versions of their baby restraint before bringing it to Waterbury.

"Say you're struggling with something as simple as colors, or types of packaging," says French Twister-inventor Lloyd. "You want to get feedback from a range of people with different backgrounds. A club is the perfect place to get that. It's your own personal focus group."

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