Inventors find time in recession to hone ideas
By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times June 2, 2009, 9:46 am TWN
If we have the Great Depression to thank for inventions such as the Twinkie, Monopoly and the photocopier, this recession may be remembered for inspiring a biodegradable shower mat, a tie that holds iPods and a gadget that breaks the vacuum seals of jars.
That's because some self-starters among the ranks of the unemployed, sick of trudging off to job fairs and sending out resumes, are starting businesses to launch that invention they've been mulling for years.
Some are hoping to make millions. Others are merely trying to solve those tricky problems you didn't know you had until you saw them in an infomercial.
"This fluctuation happens every time there's a dip in the economy," said Andrew Krauss, president of the Silicon Valley-based Inventors Alliance, which holds monthly meetings at which inventors share ideas and learn how to patent products. "But it's doubled lately — I've never seen so many people at our meetings."
Tampa, Fla., resident Joe Sale is convinced that his invention is going to change the way people wear neckties, "one tie at a time." The iTie holds iPods, business cards and credit cards in a pocket on the back, and it's fitted with elastic bands that keep the tie from falling in the wearer's soup.
Sale had been thinking about how to improve on the modern cravat for years but didn't have time to create and patent the invention until he was laid off from his sales job at Robert Half Technology in August. He's put US$25,000 into the project.
"I have been looking for a job," he said. "But the market is so bad; I know that realistically I'm not going to be employed in the next three months."
The number of patent and trademark filings in 2009 is 2 percent behind last year because major corporations, which generate the majority, are cutting back, according to a spokeswoman from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
But in one indication of increased activity, membership in the United Inventors Association, a nonprofit education and support group, has grown 20 percent in the last six months, said its executive director, Patrick Raymond.
Inventors in states including Michigan and New York have created six local clubs in the last year, Raymond said.
"Interest in inventing is high, and our membership is growing in the middle of a recession," he said.
Dina Beauvais of Phoenix spent 22 years buying, fixing up and selling houses. But after flipping one last August, she decided that the market was imploding and vowed to try her hand at inventing.
She has long been frustrated by the task of keeping food cold or warm when packing meals for her kids. So she spent US$2,000 to make and patent a product she's calling Meals to Go. It's an airtight and watertight plastic container that carries food, a hot or cold pack and a soup tureen.
"My goal is to make US$100,000 in royalties," she said. Just in case, she also sent out 100 resumes looking for a full-time job in telecommunications.
More Beauvais family products may be coming soon. She and her husband encourage their children to carry around "inventing notebooks" to jot down ideas. On the advice of patent attorneys, they date their entries in case they need to prove they came up with something first.
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