Would-be inventors flock to Texas to find out if their ideas will fly

Suppose you have a marvelous invention that you believe will catch the public's fancy and make you rich. How can you be guaranteed success?

The answer, of course, is that you can't be guaranteed success. Inventing, like any other form of entrepreneurship, has its risks.

But here at Baylor University, you can get the next best thing to a guarantee. For $75, a team of veteran businessmen will tell you what it will cost to produce your invention. It will also tell you the likelihood of public acceptance for your product and the amount of competition you will likely face.

They will tell you the probability of securing a patent and, most important, whether your invention will earn the handsome profit you envision. It's all part of Baylor's Innovation Evaluation program, a nationwide effort to help inventors , gadgeteers, and other creative types determine if their products will succeed in the marketplace.

Now celebrating its second birthday, the Baylor invention center continues to receive some of the most extraordinary contraptions from all 50 states. Some of the inventions evaluated at Baylor are funny - for example, a dripless toilet brush or a bicycle that folds to the size of an attache case. Other creations, however, are earnest attempts to meet real consumer needs:

* A Texas inventor submitted a cryptic silver cylinder that attached to a car's fuel pump and allegedly boosted the car's gasoline mileage 33 percent.

* A Colorado inventor sent Baylor a ladder with uneven legs for use on uneven terrain.

* A man from Washington State designed a miniature crane that permitted him to hoist a boat on top of his car by himself.

* And from Illinois arrived a device that took hot air from a kitchen oven and recycled it to heat a home.

All these contraptions - and approximately 400 others - were evaluated at Baylor by a team of Waco businessmen. The invention evaluation program has been so successful, in fact, that plans for inventions have begun to arrive here from Europe.

''There are many people out there who have grand ideas for inventions, but they don't know if the product is technically feasible or even if the public will buy it,'' says Donald L. Sexton, the Caruth professor of entrepreneurship at Baylor and a founder of the invention program. ''There is a real need for objective, unbiased evaluations of inventions, and that's just what we provide.''

Indeed, one of the main reasons for the Baylor center, Professor Sexton and other innovation experts say, is that inventors typically lose their objectivity. Having spent countless hours and a lot of money to see their inventions to fruition, inventors become enamored of their invention and cannot appraise it realistically.

''It's just like raising kids,'' says Calvin A. Kent, the Herman W. Lay professor of private enterprise at Baylor. ''The inventor is just too close to his invention to be objective.''

The Baylor program is styled after a University of Oregon program begun in the middle 1970s. When the West Coast university lost some funding, it canceled its invention program and offered plans for it to Baylor. A similar program exists currently at the University of Wisconsin, but it employs students as product evaluators. And while there are many private invention evaluators around the United States, these firms often charge huge fees that the novice inventor cannot afford, and charge royalties if the product is successful.

The beauty of the Baylor program, according to Sexton, is that the school has no financial stake in inventions and thus can provide objective evaluations. Typically, inventors submitting their devices to Baylor complete an ''innovation registration'' in which they describe their products in detail. Then a five-man team of businessmen is assigned to evaluate the products using 33 criteria such as product safety, probable payback period, level of demand, and ease of distribution.

The businessmen's comments are fed into Baylor's computer. The computer averages the remarks and returns to an inventor a lengthy printout in which it estimates the inventor's probability of success. The $75 fee that inventors pay covers administrative costs such as running the computer and mailing correspondences.

''We're not patent attorneys, and we're certainly not in the business of selling other people's products,'' Sexton says. ''But we do give people a fairly accurate estimate of how their product will be received.''

Adds Professor Kent, ''What we try to do is work with the inventor at the threshold level before he puts substantial sums into a product that won't work.''

Since Baylor's evaluators are businessmen rather than scientists, the school will not evaluate high-technology items or drugs. Nor will Baylor try to evaluate a product that even smacks of trying to defy the laws of physics.

''We definitely get our share of perpetual-motion machines and antigravity machines,'' Sexton says. ''We just won't look at them.''

On the other hand, being funny doesn't disqualify a product for evaluation.

A Louisiana man, for example, submitted a monopod - a one-legged brace - to steady a hunter's rifle. Baylor's evaluation team gave the device high marks, and the product is now on hunting-store shelves.

A Florida man submitted a method that makes photographs look like paintings. The Baylor businessmen liked this idea, too, and it's now being marketed.

Finally, a woman chef, disgruntled by that fact that eggs splatter when cracked on the side of a stove, invented a dish that neatly catches the yolk and white of an egg when opened. The dish should appear on grocery shelves soon.

As for the Baylor program, it, too, is being marketed more heavily. The computer program for the evaluation center is being offered for $500 to any university that wants it. Already two universities - Louisiana State and the University of Missouri - have expressed interest. In addition, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Oklahoma have submitted inventions from their states to see if they want to provide financial assistance to inventors there.

Most recently, the Baylor invention center has begun to act as an idea clearinghouse, matching budding Thomas Edisons and Ely Whitneys with manufacturers, venture capitalists, and others in search of high-potential products. Says Sexton: ''I could see a program like Baylor's in every state. The opportunities are enormous.''

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