Big ideas, long odds

Inventors say selling their ideas is getting harder because of the cost and the growing competition.

October 29, 2004|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

Leaning against one wall of a Glen Arm home office are piles of sand-filled ankle weights, stick-on tire treads for the snow and a new kind of flotation belt that's a less cumbersome alternative to the oft-ignored life preserver.

This seemingly themeless collection has one thing in common: They all are The Next Big Thing from the mind of Mario P. DiForte, an independent inventor who has plenty of company in other would-be American entrepreneurs.

What's unseen are unanswered phone calls and rejection letters from manufacturers that DiForte faces at an unprecedented clip. DiForte and others say the process of inventing is as time-consuming, and rewarding, as ever. But selling an idea has gotten more competitive and complicated in a tech-savvy society.

"It's harder and harder," DiForte said. "You can't just have a big idea like Edison or Ford anymore. The corporations have their own inventors, the costs have gone up, and there's so much competition."

There are more people than ever calling themselves inventors, with patent requests at all-time highs. Industry observers and inventors say this is a sign of the times, with more people from stay-at-home mothers to newly laid-off workers envisioning bold new ways to make a buck, stoke their creative side or, the ultimate dream, to get rich quick.

Giving them hope are modern-day examples of inventors made wealthy and famous with a good idea: Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway personal transport machine and medical devices; Bill Gates, software inventor; and Steve Jobs, the man behind Apple computers. There also are all those must-haves hawked by entrepreneurs on QVC television in between name- brand stuff.

Patents are a measure of all of the products - some good and some not so good - generated by enterprising individuals and corporations. And the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office logged 188,941 applications from American inventors last year, nearly tripling in four decades.

The Internet has fueled the growth by disseminating how-to information and providing ways to reach buyers. Inventors say it also has fueled more schemes by so-called promoters collecting large fees but never delivering a sale.

All the competition, and pitfalls, also mean the inventors have to be more informed. And the inventions have to be smarter, better marketed and complete with an official patent, said Robert Lougher, executive director of the United Inventors Association, a nonprofit association that aids inventors.

"The inventor is the person who decides to do something, and there are hundreds of thousands of them," he said. "Some say less than 2 to 3 percent are actually successful, although recent studies indicate that number may be as high as 10-15 percent."

Successful inventors learn about their products' potential market and the system of getting them to it. Many associations offer free advice and support.

It costs $4,000 to $5,000 for the legal work to patent a fairly simple idea - the price is higher for a more complex one. Patent office fees are $385 to file and $500, $1,000 and $1,500 for three maintenance fees over the 20-year life of the patent. Securing a patent can take up to two years.

Pitching products

Inventors then can pitch their products directly to manufacturers, distributors or companies that would license the product. Recently, some big corporations have begun accepting pitches from inventors.

Dial Corp., maker of the household products Dial, Purex and Renuzit, set up a Web site this month through which inventors can submit their patented or patent-pending ideas to complement the soap, laundry detergent and air fresheners already in the company's lineup. Dial is looking for new products and creative packaging and dispensing systems.

But DiForte, 60, knows having a new and appealing product doesn't guarantee success. After a career as an inventor, with some products actually making it to market, he believes his latest life belt invention, called The Survivor, is his best work.

He said he has spent years and much of his savings on the belt, with his first patent won on it in 1992. But never has he encountered such resistance from buyers and investors. They tell him they already offer a full line of personal flotation devices. But he can't let it go.

As a former lifeguard, he frets every time he hears of a drowning victim who wasn't wearing a life vest. They are too cumbersome, they block the sun and they get hot. He believes the belt, which has both a foam core and a self-inflating extra flap, would save lives because many of the industry's estimated 72 million recreational boaters would actually wear it. He won Coast Guard approval for it this year.

His patent attorney, Royal Craig, said he believes only about half of patented ideas, largely held by corporations, become products. And some ideas are never patented. About 90 percent are rejected at first, although many go on to be approved.

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