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Inventors find time in recession to hone ideas

Tuesday, June 2, 2009
By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times


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.

Since August, her 8-year-old daughter Lauren has invented a board game called the Math Pizza Hut Track (it's not affiliated with the restaurant chain); her husband, Mark, has created Flexi-Desk, an ergonomically sound desk for laptop computers; and Beauvais produced another product, the Dream to Destiny kit, which comes with a dream necklace and a patented tip sheet on how to fulfill your dreams. It's on sale online for US$19.95.

“I worked in corporate America for 11 years, and I wasn't happy,” she said. “So I decided to be a full-time inventor.”

Newark, Calif., soccer mom Rebecca Berrigan invented a product inspired by her own experience in the workplace.

While traveling on business for KB Home, Berrigan slipped in a Las Vegas hotel shower and almost hit her head. She thought then that someone should make a disposable shower mat. After being laid off in mid-2006, she decided to do it herself.

The product, Squishy Toes the Biodegradable Shower Mat, isn't selling as quickly as she had hoped: She says her target market of hotels isn't much in the shopping mood, so she's reformatting the product for use by campers. But she doesn't regret the US$10,000 she spent to create and patent the product.

“It's been hugely rewarding to take something that was a thought and bring it to fruition,” she said.

Because most inventors don't know much about marketing and selling their products, the best way to get inventions into the hands of consumers is to license them to companies with the means to produce, advertise and sell them, said Stephen Key, the co-founder of InventRight, a Web site that educates inventors about how to bring a product to market.

Key said 97 percent of all patents never make more money than the inventor spends on the patent, but that renting out an idea to a company can earn inventors thousands of dollars.

Companies that buy people's inventions and produce them have received more pitches as the economy has deteriorated further.

Household products company Oxo International Ltd. has seen a significant uptick in pitches from inventors hoping to get their products licensed, said Katherine Sall, the legal assistant and office manager who handles the pitches. But the company hasn't found anything appealing among the submissions so far, she said.

“It's like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” Sall said.

Don McCammon can tell you that striking a licensing deal doesn't guarantee success. He was laid off from his job as a mental health counselor in late 2007 and took US$100,000 out of his 401(k) to see whether he could develop any of the inventions that he had been kicking around.

He licensed his LidPunch — a device that breaks the vacuum seal of jars — to Viatek Consumer Products Group Inc., which made an As Seen on TV infomercial for it. He's still trying to license his Fridgerack — a sliding rack with custom containers to put in your refrigerator so you don't lose your leftovers, and his Chef's Knife Rack, a magnetic knife rack made from plastic that attaches to any surface, including tile or metal.

McCammon, 62, still hasn't made any money from his ideas. His wife isn't thrilled that so much of their savings are gone. She isn't yet convinced that McCammon, who likes to quote Thomas Edison, who held 1,039 patents, is the next great American inventor.

“My wife won't let me spend much more on new inventions till I start to make some money from my current ones,” he said.

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