Most budding inventors believe useful innovations will automatically bring them fame and fortune. But a good idea is really just one ingredient needed for a product's success - and it is easy to end up losing money instead of making it.
Build a better mousetrap, and the world may run screaming in the other direction.
* Lawrence Kamm, robot engineer, founder of four companies, puts it bluntly: ''You have to stuff even good ideas down the customer's throat.''
* His basement workshop used to be a factory, but Roger Nowak says he won't invent anymore. His funnel cap for oil cans was selling well, but a big company moved in on the patent, he says, and there was nothing he could do.
''I'm not going to spend my retirement money to be a sap again,'' he says bitterly.
* The cheerful Harry Freeman invented a new kind of paint, an early supermarket checkout counter, and a hamburger patty machine that reshapes 56 cows a day. He beams as some fellow inventors bemoan their plight.
''Frankly,'' he says, while the conversation flows on without him, ''I've reached the age where I don't care anymore as long as there are some fish left.''
Many of today's business success stories, such as Xerox, Polaroid, and Wang Corporation, started with an individual inventor. Ubiquitous items like the toothpaste tube (John Rand, 1841), carpet sweepers (Melville Bissell, 1876), and the zipper (Whitcomb Judson, 1893) began life as profitable patents.
But for the vast majority of today's backyard inventors, riches and fame are not just around the corner. Only one in 10,000 ideas is worthwhile, says Donald Meeker, president of the Inventors Association of New England. Of those, only one in a hundred is patentable. And only 1 patent in 10 ever finds its way to market.
Often inexperienced businessmen, inventors find it hazardous to develop products themselves. Many corporations aren't interested in out-of-house ideas, so licensing is difficult. And there is constant concern that marauding companies will rip right through any legal protection, stealing the idea and leaving nothing but a shredded patent in their wake.
''If I had known how difficult it would be,'' says Thomas Mee, a California inventor selling his own products, ''I don't know if I would have had the guts to try it.''
To succeed, you must first have a good invention. Larry Kamm builds modular robots - not the kind that look like anthropomorphic fireplugs, but industrial equipment able to grip, grab, and shuffle objects of varying tactile complexity.
When he first designed the machines, he referred to them simply as ''modular assembly programs.'' He developed them by reducing motion to basic components. By stacking together modules that either rotate or move back and forth, he found he could reproduce any number of complex movements.
For four years he tried to raise money, without success. Then he changed the name to ''modular robot.'' In the summer of 1980, three major magazines did cover stories on the new robotics - and within weeks ''three underwriters were competing to let us go public. What was different? Nothing.''
Kamm is an inveterate inventor. For amusement he will even produce ''conversational ploy inventions,'' such as solving the traffic problem in New York by scattering little cars at random throughout the city, operable by anyone with a credit card. At night, giant trucks would gather up the autos and redistribute them along the streets.
''So I find out they're doing something like that in Amsterdam,'' he says.
Kamm, trained as an electrical engineer, has worked for several high-technology firms. He started his first company in 1951, selling an electrical connector he had invented, though he ''never invested more than pennies.'' His second firm, founded 10 years later, produced numerical controls for machine tools (a device he invented while eating a pizza in Danbury, Conn.) and was eventually sold out for a profit. The third try, based on a computer terminal he invented, never got very far.
Mobot was incorporated in 1980. The business grew 378 percent last year, and is now being sized up by corporations in search of attractive acquisitions. Kamm could be considered something of a success.
''I wouldn't do it again,'' he says. ''It's a march to life or death.''
Kamm says customers always ooh and aah when they first see his products. Then they say they'll think about it, form a committee, and refuse to commit themselves.
''Endemic lack of guts,'' he calls it. On a scale of 1 to 10, American industry has an innovation index of ''about 2. Maybe 3.''
In retrospect, Kamm says, he should have gotten an MBA. Often, inventors make elementary business mistakes; in fact, many innovation experts say ''businesslike inventor'' is a contradiction in terms. Inventors are never quite satisfied with the product; businessmen need to know when it's time to stop tinkering and start selling.
Like many new business owners, inventors often try to operate too fast, with too little structure and not enough cash. With their slightly seedy image, they have trouble raising money from banks. And many of them scoff at ''venture capital,'' provided by the supposed swashbuckling investors of the '80s. (''You mean 'vulture capital,''' says one inventor.)
''Venture capital is a misnomer. They're interested in people who already have one or more successes,'' says Richard Stockel, head of the New Jersey Office of Innovation.
And it is difficult for inventors to get a good, impartial evaluation of their invention's potential. Patent attorneys often just tell them what they want to hear. So they plunk down their life savings, and poof! it disappears faster than cookies in a college dorm.''They really are outraged when they have a rotating Christmas tree stand and their life doesn't automatically change for the better,'' says Walter Cairns, vice-president at Arthur D. Little Inc.One solution to self-development problems is an evaluation program, developed at the University of Oregon, that is now being used in university innovation centers across the country. Some centers, such as the one at Carnegie-Mellon, emphasize entrepreneurial education. Others, such as the University of Utah, also provide technical inventing help.Such programs provide an alternative to the ''front-money phonies'' - development companies that promise to mount a hefty marketing campaign, in return for an equally hefty sum of cash (in advance). At their peak in the mid-1970s, 250 such organizations were doing a hundred-million-dollar business each year. One now-defunct firm signed up thousands of clients - but only three made money.Only about 25 percent of independent inventors ever go into business for themselves. Most try to make money by licensing their products. But then they run headlong into the Not Invented Here syndrome: If we didn't produce it, how can it be any good? ''You haven't a chance in the world if you're trying to sell to a corporation with a large R&D (research and development) department,'' says inventor Ray Hoeppel.Jacob Rabinow, inventor and engineer, is having some trouble selling the latest of his 217 patents - a pickproof lock. ''Nobody wants to buy it because it's different,'' he says. ''It works. This is the thing that's funny. The human race is automatically afraid of novelty, because so much novelty is worthless.''But to license a product, it helps to have a valid patent, and many inventors now fear their ''pats.'' are permanently ''pending'' - slow in coming, and not worth much when they do arrive.''I lost any respect for the patent system long ago,'' says Lawrence Kamm.If some other company infringes on your patent, independent inventors say, chances are you will lose in court. Nationwide, about 50 percent of litigated patents are struck down. Over the last 20 years, the Eighth and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeals have invalidated 83 percent of the patents brought before them.There is, for instance, the tangled tale of the funnel cap, which began with a garage, a lawn mower, and an oil filler hole too small for any mortal to hit. It ended in a federal courtroom, $ 75,000 in legal fees later.It was Roger Nowak's garage, lawn mower, and mess. In 1971 the Worcester, Mass., inventor suddenly thought that a funnel, somehow stuck on top of the oilcan, could keep the whole process properly tidy. After a series of wood mock-ups, brass models, and trial molds, he produced his funnelcap: a skewed plastic funnel, with stopper, that snapped on for use and popped off with a push of the thumb.He patented the product and began producing it with the help of his daughter, Barbara Wyatt. Then, at a trade show in 1973, they saw an unusual thing in Hollywood Accessories' booth - their funnelcap, duplicated.''They even used the same printing and colors in the ads,'' says Nowak.After being assured of the strength of their case, they sued. But things didn't quite turn out their way.To be patentable, an invention must satisfy three conditions: It must be new, useful, and not obvious to one ''skilled in the art.''A federal judge found the funnelcap ''obvious,'' and the patent was struck down. Barbara Wyatt still makes funnelcaps - but so do 12 other companies. She must struggle for the attention of chain store buyers, she says, while the salesmen for larger producers breeze right on by, into the office.''I still think the government ought to pay me back,'' says Nowak. ''They promised (my patent) would last for 17 years. It didn't last for one.''Last year, then-President Carter signed a patent reform bill allowing inventors to ask for a reexamination of their patents, to double-check their validity before beginning an expensive legal defense.And legislation now pending in Congress would establish a single patent court of appeals, eliminating today's checkerboard of circuit courts with widely varying views on patent law.''It's an extremely complicated area of law,'' says patent commissioner Gerald Mossinghoff , ''because to understand most of the cases you at least must have a strong background in the technology involved. If the 12 circuit courts have 12 different standards, no matter what we do, inventors won't be able to rely on the patent system itself.''A patent search is laborious, paper-shuffling work, a routine essentially unchanged since 1836. The patent office, buried under a crushing backlog, now takes over 22 months to grant a patent - and it has been falling three months farther behind every year.''It takes two weeks to get your application up from the mailroom,'' says Joseph Allen, executive director of Intellectual Property Owners. ''That's not a reflection on the examiners. It's just the way the system has been allowed to deteriorate.''The Reagan administration seems committed to reversing the decline. The Patent and Trademark has been one of the few government agencies to actually receive an increased budget for 1982 (''that, and the MX missile,'' one observer says).''It's really kind of delightful,'' says Commissioner Mossinghoff of the proposed $4.8 million increase. The increase will enable the office to gain 185 examiners this year and make a start on Mossinghoff's short-term goals: reducing the waiting time to 18 months, and taking ''realistic steps now toward a fully automated patent and trademark office by the 1990s.''