While most people seek solutions, David Levy scans for problems.
"That's the key to inventing," says the winner of the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT student prize. "Wherever there is a problem, there exists a solution."
Among Mr. Levy's 12 creations are "Peelables" - layered labels for videocassettes and computer disks that peel off to uncover fresh ones - and the "world's smallest keyboard." It has 44 full-sized keys, is no bigger than a credit card, hosts an entire alphabet and numeric pad, and can be operated by a normal-sized finger.
"We need to spread the word that inventing is fun," says the mechanical-engineering student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. "It's like exploration, going where nobody else has been before."
While it may be fun, it is also serious business. So, to protect their clever ideas, an increasing number of explorers from around the world are beating a path to patent offices with their discoveries, inventions, and useful improvements of existing gizmos.
Last year, some 220,000 Edison think-alikes applied for US patents, and nearly 114,000 were approved, a twofold increase over the last 15 years.
A patent is not permission to produce, but a license to forbid others from producing the patent holder's invention. Among the three types of patents - utility, design, and plant (bioengineering) - utility was by far the most popular. The hottest fields were computer software and biotechnology.
When you apply for a patent, there is a fee for everything: The basic filing fee is $750; request for oral hearing $250, non-English specification $130, copy of patent $3, and so on. More often than not, applications are returned for clarification. That means reapplying and more fees.
So to save time and money, the invention should be refined to its ultimate focus and tested as a prototype before an application is made, says Alexander Marinaccio, founder of the Atlanta-based Inventors Club of America and the Inventors Hall of Fame. In the meantime, a detailed journal can be used as pre-protection for a patent, says Dr. Marinaccio, who assists teachers in Atlanta in showing young people how to become inventors.
On average, it costs about $5,000 to win a patent. Later improvements can be safeguarded only with a new patent and another 20-month average wait. To work through the process, the US Patent and Trade Office strongly advises prospective applicants to hire a patent attorney or agent.
Once a patent is issued, or even when one is pending, inventors should start negotiations to promote and market their creations before they become obsolete, Marinaccio says.
To capitalize on the fruits of his inquisitiveness, Levy established TH Inc. (pronounced "think") and says he has lived on the proceeds from "Peelables," for the last three years.
Now he is negotiating with major companies like AT&T and Hewlett Packard to market his tiny keyboard. The keyboard will revolutionize telephones and two-way pagers and probably usher in the era of palm-sized computers, says Hillary Deutschman of the New York-based Lemelson-MIT Prize Program.
While the "Micro-Miniature Ergonomic Keypad" might set Levy apart from most inventors, he has also created simple gadgets, like a new bicycle seat lock and the pulley he made as a fourth-grader at his Manhattan Beach, Calif., home to switch off the lights without getting out of bed.
"Invention is not a faraway world, but a daily reality," Levy observes. "Take a look around. The material world is a totally invented world."
*For patent information, write: the Commissioner of Patents and Trademarks, Washington, D.C. 20231