You Too Could Be Thomas Edison
From a remote-control car starter to an electronic baseball mitt, inventors detail what it takes to get a product from idea to the shelf
SO you've figured out a great new way to make mobile homes immune to twisters or to sleep soundly in bed while your dog is walked by remote control in the middle of the night.
Before you dream of stocking store shelves with your new design, take a closer look at what it takes to line your pockets with profits from your great idea.
Just ask Joey Prunckle about bringing an innovation to market.
Last year, the San Pedro, Calif., sixth-grader wanted to improve the performance of his kid brother's Little League team. He invented a ''ground-ball trainer'' - a mechanism attached to a baseball mitt that buzzes when a player fielding hits touches it to the ground.
Team members and coaches encouraged Joey to develop his idea. So he joined the ranks of American inventors caught up in the detail and expense of feasibility studies and legal proceedings.
As one seasoned inventor observes, imagination comes cheap. ''There are always plenty of people who come up with novel concepts and ask: 'Wouldn't it be great if?''' says Skip West, a Virginia-based inventor. His company, DesignTech International Inc., is selling 25 products here and abroad. But getting them into the hands of consumers requires a tireless effort and a bundle of money.
Mr. West began his business 10 years ago in his partner Mark Gottlieb's Washington, D.C., town house. From his Springfield, Va., factory, he ships a line of electronics products he says ''make life safer and easier.''
One of his products is a remote-control key ring that chirps when it locates your car, unlocks its doors, and turns on the headlights. He has also sold 1 million ''Back-Up Alerts'' - beepers for the back of trucks, vans, and cars that help drivers avoid hitting pedestrians and colliding with cars when they reverse.
And he is the world's largest manufacturer of a remote car starter, a device that allows you to sit at your kitchen table on a cold winter's day, 400 feet from your vehicle, and start the ignition or turn on the heater.
Employing 75 people, West sells to the American Telephone & Telegraph Corp., Radio Shack, Pep Boys, Wal-Mart, Canadian Tire, Brookstone, and a host of retailers. But, typical of inventors who sell their ideas, West's success has been hard-earned.
While doing market research to determine if they can sell their products, inventors spend an average of 20 months getting a United States patent - a process that can turn out to be quite cumbersome and costly.
Big bucks for a patent
Between government filing charges and legal fees, inventors routinely spend $5,000 to $25,000 per patent, according to Richard Maulsby, spokesman for the US Patent and Trademark Office. He recommends that inventors at least consult a lawyer, if not hire one, before they begin the process.
So-called ''invention-development companies'' are ready to prey on unsuspecting inventors anxious to cash in on their originality, Mr. Maulsby cautions.
After they fail to fulfill prepatent and postpatent promises of making a commercial success out of unmarketable of ideas, the development companies abscond with thousands of dollars.
They've proven to be so fraudulent that Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut has introduced legislation to make development companies illegal.
But if some hopefuls have been defrauded, that hasn't slowed hundreds of thousands of others. Last year, Maulsby's office issued only 113,000 patents of the approximate 200,000 applications it received.
There are three criteria for issuing a patent: The invention must be new, useful, and not obvious to an expert in the field.
In 1994, for example, IBM Corp. topped the patent list with 1,085; it was followed by Toshiba Corp. (1,040) and other Japanese firms in the top 10.
Corporations are the single-largest group of patent recipients each year, and government (especially, the Pentagon, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Agriculture) is next. Universities and independent inventors make up the balance, some 20 percent of the total.
West exports 40 percent of his output to Canada, Asia, and Europe. In Japan, he encounters a notorious distribution system that results in products getting marked up to exorbitant levels. For example, the Back-Up Alert, which sells for $20 in the US, retails for $60 in Japan because of the system.
The inventor also says he has a much tougher time securing Japanese patents. Five years into the process, West says he has yet to receive one. Not surprisingly, Maulsby says, Japan is the toughest place in the world for foreigners to secure patents. ''Ours is the only nation in the world that provides for a patent system in its constitution.''
Robert Eaton, chairman and chief executive officer of the Chrysler Corporation, patted the backs of young dreamers like Joey Prunckle at a Chrysler-sponsored inventors' competition in Washington recently.
From Model T to minivan
Often the best work, he says, is an improvisation on what's long been in use.
''That first invention - such as Thomas Edison's light bulb and the Wright Brothers' airplane - was absolutely key.'' But, like the Model T giving way to Chrysler's minivan, which was the first of its kind, such classic concepts have ''been reinvented over and over again - that's what makes [them] useful today,'' Mr. Eaton says.
He adds that while the federal space and defense programs have greatly enhanced American industry's research and development capabilities, ''government isn't helpful to the normal inventor.'' But with the number of US patents increasing - some 6 million will be registered in the US by 2000 - Americans far outpace their competitors in originality.
''There is more research and design done here than almost the rest of the Western World put together,'' Eaton says.