Inventive minds vie in search for the next office place necessity

Retail giant offers $25,000 in nationwide search

January 18, 2004|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

For teachers who spend hours pinning children's artwork to classroom walls, Roberta Dantry thinks she has the answer: the tape-ball gun. Dantry, a principal's assistant in suburban Pittsburgh, has conjured up a handheld dispenser that would fire loops of sticky tape onto a wall as fast as a staple gun.

"There is a definite market," said Dantry as she presented her idea to a panel of judges yesterday at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport Marriott. "I was in the trenches, I know."

Dantry, 43, who has worked in kindergarten classrooms, is among 18 people from Maryland and surrounding states who are bringing their brainstorms this weekend to the Staples Invention Quest, a national competition to find the next innovative office product. Competitors have entered more than 8,000 ideas since the contest began in the fall. Dantry, and those presenting today, are among 100 semifinalists competing for a $25,000 grand prize and the chance to have Staples develop their ideas.

Staples, the office supply giant, is looking for the next Post-it Note or Liquid Paper -- original products that became ubiquitous in the workplace. Contestants hope to emulate people like Art Fry, who invented Post-it Notes while trying make sticky bookmarks for his hymnal, or Betty Nesmith Graham -- mother of Michael Nesmith of the Monkees -- who invented Liquid Paper to cover typing mistakes she made working as a bank secretary.

Yesterday's semifinalists arrived with a variety of inventions -- ranging from a glue stick that could be used to seal bags of food to an electronic divining rod to help laptop users locate signals for wireless Internet access in airports.

Some gave crisp, professional presentations that focused on such concepts as primary and secondary markets. None fit the image of the Brillo-haired mad inventor. Asked about the source of his inspiration, Locke White, who came up with the glue stick, said ideas just come to him.

"I've had several products where it was divine inspiration. It literally pops into your head," said White, 47, who works in product licensing at Virginia Tech.

After some thought, he added: "Don't make me sound like a nut."

Others said they came up with their ideas to solve problems they had encountered. Charlie Conway's idea hit him when he was passing through the San Jose, Calif., airport. He carried his open laptop, trying to find a wireless signal so he could log on to the Internet. After 10 minutes, he gave up.

Conway's proposed device, which he calls a "sniffer," would help business travelers and students find an area with the strongest signal without having to turn on their laptops or lug them around. The device would be small enough to fit on a key chain.

After the presentation, Conway, 41, who spent a dozen years in purchasing, brand management and corporate advertising with Verizon, seemed energized.

"It was actually fun," said Conway, referring to the panelists' questions. Then he mused about his dream becoming reality. "It really would be incredible to be traveling through an airport and see other travelers using this product."

Conway might not have to wait long. After yesterday's presentation, judges went on the Internet and found that Conway's "sniffer" already exists. It's called the Kensington 33063 Wi-Fi Finder/Detector and is available in some Staples stores.

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