Better mousetrap builders
How small-time inventors - alone or in clubs - make widgets for fun (and maybe a profit).
WATERBURY, CONN. — Mothers of invention have turned up here at the Yankee Invention Exposition in the old Armory. So too have some fathers and grandfathers, and not a few offbeat uncles and aunts.
They watch for corporate product scouts, venture capitalists, anyone who'll inspect the whiz-bang widgets they have lovingly contrived. Joe and Melissa Sugameli, from Roseville, Mich., show their "Lil' Sleepy Head" restraint, meant to keep babies from slumping in car seats. Tom Knightlinger, from Zebulon, N.C., touts a tiny "Popabrella" that can keep a camera dry. Octogenarian R.P. "Lux" Wilkinson, from Ardmore, Okla., offers fraud-busting checks with photo identification imprinted in their corners.
Mr. Wilkinson is a consulting petrologist by trade. "If you need a drillin' deal," he drawls, "I've got one of those, too."
Meet today's would-be Edisons, the best of whom might land their work on store shelves and in late-night infomercials. America - culture of invention - celebrates these endearingly earnest characters. USA Network's new reality show "Made in the USA" stages inventor competitions, awarding winners with a year on the Home Shopping Network. Jay Leno sent a camera crew to Waterbury last week.
But at its heart this is a participatory game. Some weekend inventors fly solo. Many others now join inventor clubs to share lessons and tactics, gaining group-rate access to patent services. Surprisingly - in what one might imagine is an inherently secretive world - many even talk over specific ideas with peers, and the ideas flow.
Last year the US Patent and Trademark Office granted more than 164,000 "utility" patents - patents for inventions, as opposed to designs and processes. Most went to the IBMs and Matsushitas of the world; the US government scored 800-plus. But more than 16,500 went to small, private inventors. A patent is no guarantee of marketplace success. Simplicity helps. That's reflected in the Waterbury array: a golf-tee dispenser, a fishing-pole holster, a hat with a pocket, a wrist-wrapping cellphone sleeve. "Those types of inventions tend to have a greater chance of being successful than something that you've got to convince Boeing to do," says Stephen Nipper, a patent attorney with Dykas, Shaver & Nipper in Boise, Idaho. "[The best is] something you can make in your garage, then sell or license to somebody who can get it into Wal-Mart."
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 Scünci. She made, she says, about $28 million in 10 years.
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."
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.
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."