Inventing strategies for hopeful inventors

Workshop to discuss bringing ideas to life

Small business

Howard Business

April 28, 2003|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

For Stephen Frank, developing the idea of a tool to help interpreters for the deaf was easy. Turning that idea into a product was another expensive matter.

But Frank, president of Clear View Innovations of Baltimore has made the first part of a leap that thousands of inventors only dream of - going from perception to product.

He and several others knowledgeable about that long and costly process will speak May 6 to others searching for ways to turn their ideas into inventions. An innovator's showcase sponsored by the Howard County Economic Development Authority at its NeoTech Incubator is designed to give guidance to inventors and help them understand the challenges they are likely to face.

"An independent inventor is pretty much out there on their own. They're not entrepreneurs. They're creative people who solve problems," said Nancy Gebhart, who is coordinating the program. "We decided to have a technology showcase to bring in individuals who were experienced in commercializing products like inventions."

The showcase, scheduled from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., is the latest in a series of programs to educate inventors. Gebhart, who began volunteering with the authority last year to help the county focus on inventors, has coordinated seminars on the patent application process, protecting intellectual property and on trademarking. She also has started an inventors networking group that meets once a month and invites speakers to share information on those processes.

This is the first time the county has sponsored an inventor's showcase, but Gebhart said she is trying to cover all the bases, including topics such as performing market studies, dealing with manufacturers and avoiding pitfalls. A representative from the Federal Trade Commission, which has investigated complaints about invention marketing and promotion companies, will be there to speak about those who fraudulently claim to help inventors patent and market their products while extracting large sums of money from them.

While finding money is one hurdle - getting a production mold for a prototype can cost $80,000 or more - Frank noted other pitfalls.

It took him three years and $100,000 to obtain a patent and manufacture angled mirrors, called the Interpreter Mirror, which allow interpreters for the deaf to watch a speaker who is adjacent and see information projected on the wall behind them without turning around.

Frank, an interpreter, said the tool gives deaf audience members a smoother and better conversation. In the two years since the product has been on the market, Frank said he has put $50,000 more into the company to develop a compact version of the interpreter and another product called the UltraMirror. That device can be used for people with limited head mobility, or attached to computer monitors to give a user a fuller view of the environment.

The five-year process has taught Frank how to organize, raise money and avoid becoming addicted to his invention.

"There are times I would get home to work on my invention, but I skipped meals or didn't talk to my family, or didn't get out to see the sunset," Frank said. "Sometimes my whole mood was based on if someone liked or didn't like my invention, or if I had a problem or didn't have a problem [with it]. You really have to try to balance it and put it in the right place in the scheme of life."

But Frank said he has more hurdles to overcome: convincing the interpreting community of the product's value and finding a company to license it so he can get out of the manufacturing business.

Frank said he has sold 200 mirrors in 18 months, but he is hoping the compact interpreter, which became available two weeks ago, will help him.

"I don't want to run a business to make thousands of mirrors. I'd prefer to be interpreting," he said. "This came out of a necessity for myself."

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