Inventor's new flotation device passes every test but can't interest industry


September 11, 1994|By PETER BAKER

If one were to invent the better mousetrap, would the mousetrap industry welcome the product?

Maybe, maybe not.

First it would have to be tested to find out whether it would attract mice, trap or kill them, and ensure they could not escape. It would have to be fool proof, it would have to be ready for manufacture and distribution, and most of all it would have to be something the public would want and businessmen could sell -- preferably at a sizable profit.

Mario DiForte, a 50-year-old in- ventor from Baltimore, has been through the process many times with many different kinds of products, including the doughnut weight used on baseball bats, weights used by joggers, and lug-nut wrenches.

Twenty-two years ago, DiForte began work on what seems to be the better personal flotation device for recreational boaters. Recently, the U.S. Coast Guard approved The Survivor, a Type V hybrid PFD belt that uses inherent buoyancy and also can be inflated.

While The Survivor is the only non-vest PFD to be approved by the Coast Guard for boaters of all types and people working over water on bridges or oil rigs, for example, DiForte is finding that the better mousetrap he has created does not have the PFD industry scurrying to his door.

"I wanted to save lives, so you can say that my motives in this were altruistic," said DiForte, who has been interested in watersports and safety since before his days as a lifeguard at Beaver Dam. "But trying to sell something new like this to the industry is very difficult. Altruism? It doesn't sell."

Part of the reason, DiForte said, is that he and co-workers at DiForte Innovations, Inc., on Northwind Road, have succeeded where many others have failed, including established designers in the industry.

"In this country we have the most stringent and strict testing procedures in the world," DiForte said, "but once you get Coast Guard approval, that is God's stamp, believe me."

During more than two decades and two regimes of the Coast Guard, some 260 alternative PFD designs have been submitted for testing. Only The Survivor was approved.

"It has not been easy," DiForte said. "I have spent everything I own -- my house and property -- two or three times over. I have taken on investors and bootstrapped them together and spent their money two or three times over."

In the last five years DiForte has worked full-time without salary on The Survivor project. Total development, testing and legal costs have exceeded $900,000.

To understand a little of what DiForte and co-workers went through to get The Survivor approved is to know that before the project began the Coast Guard rules dealt only with traditional life vest designs, and those vests could be constructed only of previously approved materials.

Each time any part of the apparatus fails any step in the Underwriter Laboratories tests, the process must begin again from Step 1 with another sample. In the case of The Survivor, the process had to be completed for each of four sizes.

"We found that the standard materials weren't good enough for what we wanted to do," DiForte said. "For example, we had to make a new buckle."

Because Type V PFDs still must be worn at all times to meet Coast Guard regulations, a new fabric that would be more resistant to ultraviolet ray damage had to be found. The Survivor had to be fire retardant and had to hold up under impacts at 35 mph. In October, The Survivor is expected to be upgraded to Type II and would not have to be worn at all times to meet Coast Guard regulations.

With traditional life vests, which must be on board boats but may be stored out of the sun in lockers or cabins, the testing procedures required that the shell fabric meet standards even after 100 hours under carbon-arc lights.

"With us, they wanted the fabric to be better, so we had to have 300 hours of testing," DiForte said, adding that even the best standard fabric came back just above the minimum of 40 percent of its original condition. "What we eventually came up with came back at 96 percent after 300 hours."

The first generation of The Survivor is much less cumbersome than traditional PFDs, using a thin belt of permanently buoyant material for instant flotation and complemented by compartments that can be inflated by CO2 cartridges or blown up or topped off by mouth in a continuing emergency.

The belt strap and buckle are strong enough to be tethered to the boat, if necessary, and can be used as a lifting eye for up to 475 pounds, should a helicopter rescue be necessary, for example.

"People don't wear PFDs for three basic reasons: They are hot, they are bulky and uncomfortable, and they ruin their tan lines," DiForte said.

"This product is unobtrusive, and you wear it around your waist rather than the neck and shoulders."

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