The quintessential invention

The world will soon be beating a path of the door of the Boston Core Group inc., an inventors group that has, well, built a beter mousetrap. Before you dismiss the group as a collection of overage high school science-fair tinkerers, be advised: They've sold the idea to a major corporation for a figure that would make Horatio Alger squeak.

But is it really a better mousetrap?

"It's approximately 60 percent of the cost of the old model and safer too," Andrew Martin, the young president of the company, says. While the group is completing plans on a number of inventions, the mousetrap has been its primary devotion through the first three years of the company's existence.

although it measures only 1 3/4 inches by 4 inches, the mousetrap packs a wallop. The base of the device is made of sturdy plastic and has several unique features which Martin points out. One is the "safety-set," which prevents the contraption from attacking the user's fingers when he or she fumbles to set it. an attachment on the bar also allows the user to dispose of the mouse without touching the creature.

I lightly touch my pen to the supersensitive trigger. With a sharp TWACK! the tightly wound copper wire unsprings with a vengeance, and my pen is hopelessly and instantaneously ensnared.

I challenge the trap against my own reflexes. TWACK! With a viselike grip surely as strong as the claw of a 10-pound lobster, the trap nabs my finger at the second knuckle. My curiosity is satisfied.

"The better mousetrap was the classic challenge," Martin, the company's founder and president, explains. "The invention of inventions. When we first started, the design of the mousetrap was very crude. It would have cost a fortune to build it, and it wouldn't have been competitive on the market," although more so than an inventor's recent plan to build a laser beam mousetrap that would have cost $1,500 per unit.

"So we slowly realized, traveling from company to company, how to redesign it so it wuld cost less than existing mousetraps, which was difficult. We first contacted the mousetrap companies in the United States, of which there are two. They said, 'We don't want to see it, thank you anyway,' which is a very common response because you're coming up with a product that would be in competition with theirs.

"Then we went to a corporation that makes clothespins, because they are made out of wood and wire, which is what mousetraps are made of. Our talks with them led to negotiations with another company, with whom we ended up with a final design and contract.

"The secret is, it uses four less parts, which makes it more durable and less expensive. The whole process took us three years, and the mousetrap we ended up with is entirely different from the one we started with."

I spoke with Martin and four other Core Group members on the gravel roof of Martin's apartment building in the Brighton section of Boston. The "board room" is used frequently to escape summer's heat, but also to maintain the informality conducive to original thinking. We sit on three broken chaise longues packed tightly in a triangle, the usual pattern for a brainstorming session.

"The primary function of the Boston Core Group is to market inventions, both our own, and ideas sent to us by the public," Martin says. Inventive ideas are what excite the group, bu the marketing is what makes them a corporation and sets them apart from the amateur inventor who has a truckload of ideas but nowhere to go with them. Formulating a method for researching, patenting, developing, and marketing inventions has been their goal since the corporation was formed, and it's taken a full three years to reach that point.

"The whole idea of the Core Group is to set up a technologies exchange group, " Martin continues. "You seel the technologies to a manufacturer who already has the experience. We try to determine exactly what a company wants; what criteria they have for manufacturing and marketing. That's what most inventors overlook; they simply send a company something and if they get rejected they take it as a total loss. When an idea is accepted by a company, the work has only begun."

The reason for the Core Group's prosperity is that Martin's cast of supporting characters -- all in their 20s -- are experts in specific skills necessary for successful marketing. The group began forming when Martin moved to Boston from New York, where he was involved in a now-defunct inventors group specializing in high technology. One by one, Martin has added members to the Core Group as their expertise was needed.

Except for Martin, they all hold full-time jobs outside. Joel Shoner, a computer programmer, is the company's chief researcher. Dean Zack, a magazine editor, handles the group's advertising. Bruce Withey, a technical illustrator by trade, is in charge of graphics, while his brother Jeff is a gardener by day and the Core Group's troubleshooting general assistant by night. In addition, the list of consultants employed by the group includes a number of top lawyers, bankers, and engineers.

None of the group has anything in common with the stereotypical absent-minded inventor in a cluttered workshop, with wispy fly-blown hari, studiously crouched over an unrecognizable contraption. These inventors are businessmen dealing in ideas. The ideas that sell are the simplest ones.

"We're aiming at the markets that are proven." Martin says. "We want to improve on existing technology. Our basic guideline for any invention is that it be simpler, safer, more effective, and less expensive than the existing product. We're emphasizing high-volume sales technology -- consumer products, for example."

Take the group's second invention, a new kind of potato chip bag. After two years of painstaking development, their redesigned "Best Bag" is reclosable, easier to open, doesn't tear, and has a handle that doubtless as a tie-top.

"The potato chip bag is the single largest-volume sales item in the world," Martin discloses. "There's no item which sells more than this type of packaging. We took the first design of the bag to a company. We had a discussion with three of their vice-presidents and two of their engineers.

"The engineers said, 'The machines we purchase cost $500,000 to produce the normal bag.It would cost us $30,000-50,000 to adapt each one of them to produce your bag. Come up with a system that costs less than $1,000.' It wasn't as easy as it sounded."

"We've gotten an engineer to make the piece of the machinery that has to be modified to make our bag," Blair Cruickshank, Martin's assistant, interjects. "Now the system can be installed for less than $1,000."

All has not been glittering successes for the inventors. The most notorious failure was the "Pineapple." A decorative countertop item, the lid of the pineapple comes off so that waste cooking grease can be poured in.The product had no takers; the pineapple was, in Martin's words, "a lemon."

Eventually the Core Group would like most of its ideas to come from the public at large.

"Our job is to improve on the inventor's idea," Martin says. "An inventor is not going to know a lot about basic design of a finished product. It's our job to take it from crude idea to finished product."

To this end, classified ads have been placed in about 30 magazines, which have netted around 250 responses.

"About 60 percent of them can be eliminated just by looking at them," Martin concedes, "but the ones that are good we treat as though they're our own. If we succeed with the idea, we split 65-35. They receive the larger share, but we take the risk."

The inventions are sent in by people of all ages. They can be fancy mock-ups or simple designs.

"A woman from upstate New York sent in an idea, and the entire description was one sentence and one hand-drawn picture on the back of our form," Martin says. "Of all the ideas -- we've had prototypes sent in, etc. -- that was the best idea."

With patents playing such a vital part in its work, the Core Group is acutely aware of how important law is to it. Moreover, the partners know that they must counteract the bad name illegal practices have earned inventors groups in the past. "The American Patent Law Association did an investigation of one group that handled 38,000 inventions, of which they sold one. They made millions of dollars by charging a fee to professionally package the invention," Martin says. Such companies mislead inventors by implying they are genuine middlemen in the sale of the invention, when in fact they limit their work to expensive drawings and brochures that look nice but don't sell the product. The Core Group returns a legal guarantee to each inventor specifying the obligations of both parties.

As its capital base enalrges, and its marketing knowledge increases, the Core group hopes to take on inventions of greater and greater sophistication, building on a foundation of mousetraps.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.