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Inventors draw closer to bring ideas to fruition

Inventors, traditionally not a clubby lot, are increasingly banding together. Across the country, a growing number of backyard tinkerers, lawyers, financiers, and others are forming inventor clubs and groups aimed at spurring a grass-roots revival in innovation. And their ranks are growing.

''Inventors have tended to be loners, but now they are beginning to band together . . . ,'' says Gerald Udell, director of the Innovation Institute in Eugene, Ore., a consulting firm for small businesses and inventors. ''They can't turn to the government or private sector because the help, literally, isn't there.''

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Nationwide, there are now believed to be anywhere from 50 to 100 inventors' groups, ranging from two- to three-member living-room clubs to formal organizations with several hundred members. Many of them have sprung up in the past few years.

What's fueling the growth isn't so much a need to air political complaints - though that is in abundance - as a drive to see more ideas make it from the garage to the marketplace.

Inventors are good at coming up with ideas - some 20 percent of the 70,000 -odd patents granted in the United States each year go to independent inventors. But they are poor at turning them into money-spinning products. Roughly one idea in a hundred makes it into the marketplace. And just getting the idea off the ground frequently costs $50,000 or more.

Nor are these odds necessarily improving. Many inventors still find US corporations uninterested in backing their ideas. And, while private funding for entrepreneurs is loosening up, much of it is being channeled into specialized areas.

''Unless you happen to be a inventor associated with high technology, you will have problems,'' says Clyde LaGrone of Will Inc., an innovation and small-business development firm in Fort Collins, Colo. ''The interest of the venture-capital world . . . is with high technology.''

At the national level, the attempt to forge a tighter brotherhood of inventors is being carried out by the National Congress of Inventor Organizations (NCIO). The umbrella group, officially formed just over a year ago , is primarily an educational and information clearinghouse for groups around the country.

With about two dozen dues-paying chapters, NCIO isn't well heeled. Nor is it likely to pose any threat to Rotarians when it comes to booking convention space for annual meetings.

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But, as inventors' networks go, it is considered to have something of a firm-footed start. By nature, inventors are not a fraternal group. For one thing , they like to maintain a poker-player secrecy about ideas they're working on. Understandably so. Then, too, those who join the groups do not bear any common professional stamp.

They are lawyers, scientists, backyard putterers, financiers - lured not by any common code of conduct but by the process of turning ideas into goods. Even among inventors themselves, interests often vary: While one may want to talk about new types of stepladders, another may be exploring the redesigning of the chopstick.

Many an inventor joins groups long enough to learn about the perils of patenting or how to round up funding, then retreats to his garage or design shop.

''The inventor is really interested in his idea and the success of his idea, '' says Frank VanAntwerpen, NCIO executive director. ''He is more interested in keeping his invention going than he is in the group. A graduate from a college doesn't go back to the student prom.''

For this reason, many clubs and regional groups have sprung up in the past, only to wither a few years later. But, given the growing desire for rekindling innovation around the world, many believe this time around the inventors' fraternity will prove to be less fickle.

''In five years from now we may find 70 to 80 inventor organizations representing 100,000 inventors,'' predicts George Lewett, an official with the National Bureau of Standards, who works with grass-roots groups. ''They (inventor groups) have always been a bunch of disparate voices. Now these disparate voices are beginning to speak more to each other.''

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