Baltimore inventor's next big idea

Mario DiForte seeks to give away nearly two dozen inventions to companies that can create jobs

November 01, 2010|By Lorraine Mirabella, The Baltimore Sun

Inventor Mario P. DiForte has spent more than four decades thinking of ideas for gadgets, tools and products. If there's a better way to practice baseball, drive a car, talk on a cell phone, prevent illness on airplanes or rescue a person from drowning, DiForte thinks he has a solution in his arsenal.

Now, at 66, DiForte is battling heart problems and fears that nearly two dozen unsold inventions may never do more than gather dust on the shelves of his Glen Arm home. That worry has sparked what DiForte believes could be his biggest concept of them all: He intends to give his ideas away.

The catch: DiForte says he will hand over patents, including pending and provisional ones, on 22 products to "legitimate" companies only if they agree to make the products and create jobs. And he wants to shepherd his brainchildren through production as a paid consultant, even if only on a part-time basis. It's a sweeping offer. It means he would agree to take no licensing fees or royalties from product sales.

"I think it's very generous, but then that sounds like Mario," said DiForte's Baltimore-based patent attorney, Royal W. Craig, a principal with Ober Kaler. "He's got a heart of gold."

Former U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, who has known DiForte for about 20 years — since he approached her for help marketing a personal flotation belt — says DiForte fits the profile of the typical inventor.

"Inventors are geniuses in developing items," Bentley said. "They are lousy businesspeople and they have a hard time selling themselves. And that's sort of been Mario's position. He's a dreamer. A lot of inventors I've known are dreamers. Some succeed in their dreams and some don't."

DiForte's attorney says the patent donation idea could be a great move, especially as a way to market what Craig believes is DiForte's hallmark product — and the most viable: the "Survivor" life belt.

"He truly had a great idea," Craig says of the inflatable life preserver worn like a belt. "But any great idea is a window of opportunity that doesn't last forever."

DiForte has invested "tremendous" amounts of his time and money in developing the product and "he has now come to the realization that no company is just going to come beating down his door or trying to get a license for this," Craig said. "He's looking for a more creative way of getting his idea out there. Our Walmart-oriented economy is hostile to small companies and independent inventors."

But Bentley disagrees with DiForte's approach. "He should require a royalty," she said. "Anybody who could produce these [products] can certainly pay him a royalty. He should receive something."

For as long as he can remember, DiForte says, he has tried to look at an everyday object and find a way to make it better.

Even as a child in Gardenville, in Northeast Baltimore, he was fascinated by how things worked. A 1962 graduate of City College who played football at Baltimore Junior College, he worked sales jobs while he and his wife raised two children in Parkville. But even when he worked jobs unrelated to product development, the ideas kept flowing. He would invest his savings in research, developing prototypes, and applying for and maintaining patents.

Typically, his ideas stemmed from a problem.

A bat weight that flew off during a ball game and injured a spectator inspired a vinyl version that sticks to the bat. A snowstorm led to the Snow Grip, a peel-off rubber strip that can be stuck to tires. Then there's the Survivor, into which DiForte has poured decades of research, development and savings to come up with the only U.S.-patented and Coast Guard-approved inflatable life belt.

"I was always a little too far ahead of my time," DiForte said. "The thing I lacked was marketing, and the key to all of this is marketing."

DiForte said he has invested the most time and money in perfecting his Survivor life belt, taking it through 22 versions and investing $107,000 from savings and a second mortgage on his former house. He got Coast Guard approval in the mid-1990s and spent the late 1990s traveling across the country making presentations to companies. But no deal went through.

DiForte said he has been told by companies who considered but rejected his products that they were either too similar to items on the market or too new, which meant too costly to produce. But he contends that his patents and pending patents are for fully researched and developed products that could be put into production right away.

While the ideas keep coming, DiForte says, health problems have kept him from doing the heavy lifting of inventing, researching, seeking investors, refining ideas and marketing.

Besides, as an independent inventor, the odds are stacked against him. Of the more than 82,000 "utility" patents granted in the United States in 2009, just 5.3 percent went to individuals, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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