New North B2B
In this book, “Why Have Americans Stopped Inventing?” author and patent attorney Darin Gibby says Americans are coming up with less than half the inventions our ancestors did 150 years ago. He blames the U.S. patent system and the huge costs associated with getting a patent, which pretty much boot the average garage-bred inventor out of the running. From the sounds of the media drumbeat, homegrown innovation is inert as a rodent in the proverbial mouse trap. Which means maybe we don’t need to build a better one after all.
But in northeast Wisconsin, imply that innovation is extinct and you’re likely to get yourself decked with a Friendly Bed, a Parti-Bowl or a vanishing television screen.
“Our philosophy is to be good at what you do, stay ahead of the curve, and develop a network of people that allows you to trust them,” said Gretchen Gilbertson, who with her husband Tim founded the now 9-year-old Suera (pronounced seera) in Green Bay, a company that makes televisions that transform into mirrors, luxury waterproof TVs for showers and yards, and backlit mirrors. “Sales are a testament for doing things very well,” Gilbertson said.
Last year, Wisconsin inventors contributed, 1,784 patents to the nation’s 108,626. It’s a lot higher than Alaska, with only 27 patents, but eons behind California, with 28,148/
We are behind our neighbors Illinois and Minnesota, which each more than doubled our number, producing more than 3,800 patents last year. But the good news is our numbers have increased over the last decade or so: in 2011, Wisconsin put out 217 more patents than 1998.
Art is in the eye of the beholder
Less than a decade ago, the Gilbertsons’ lives looked completely different. Both worked in product development and consumer research for large companies, Gretchen for the Huggies line of diapers at Kimberly-Clark Corp. and Time with developing custom refrigeration products for the hospitality industry. Then the magic light bulb of inventor went on.
They had seen a showcase home in Madison that had a bathroom with bulky combination mirror/television that sat in a 5-foot home in the bathroom wall. “Visitors were crowded in the bathroom marveling at this thing,” Gretchen Gilbertson said.
The Gilbertsons brainstormed how to make a better one and planned the company they’d form soon thereafter.
“We were like, ‘We love the concept; there’s nothing at all like it on the market that most people have heard or. Is there any opportunity for us to expand it and create a product that can be sold to the mass market?’” Gilbertson said. “On the way home we were already starting to draw up plans, and we were beginning to establish relationships with people in the electronic field.’
What’s out there?
One of the first things a prospective inventor needs to do is market research. Gilbertson and her husband were researching and finding focus groups to bounce their ideas off within a month of the showcase of homes that sealed their fate.
“Find out who is selling it, how much is it selling for, who is buying it and what are they paying for,” said Mark Payne, mechanical engineering associate with Fox Valley Technical College’s Fab Lab, an inventor resource center for the region. That will give you A – an idea on whether to proceed and B – it’s important to have if you are entering into licensing negotiations.”
Fab Lab is short for ‘fabrication laboratory,’ and it offers help to inventors with design, prototyping and general direction of their idea. It’s located at FVTC in Appleton and is a collaborative effort with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They can help take an idea all the way through the concept development process to commercialization, which is ultimately the goal of any invention.
“No product is worth anything unless it goes somewhere, which means if you have an idea, you owe it to yourself to go network and see what resources are out there to help you.” Said Joe Vosters, president of Bill-Ray Home Mobility in Appleton and the inventor of Friendly Beds, a heavy-duty system of components that fits over any size bed to improve independence for the elderly and those with physical challenges.
“You can’t be shy about going to different groups to make the connections and meet people, because sometimes when you are networking, it make take five layers of connections before you get to the person with the answers you need,” Vosters said
Bringing inventors together
Inventor Jeff Hitzler of Green Bay founded the Inventors Network in Wisconsin in 1999 to provide support and savvy to those bitten by the invention bug. It meets six times yearly at the DJ Bordini Business & Industry Center in Appleton. Past speaker topics have included marketing, product liability, focus groups, web development and other business-oriented topics.
“We try to steer people in the right direction,” Hitzler said. “We’re an education-based group – we don’t push products or inventors, we push inventors to have as much knowledge about the process as we can.”
Many people with good ideas don’t know where to start. “They immediately think they have to knock on the door of one of those ‘invention help’ places, Hitzler said. “There are a lot of steps an inventor has to do in order to do it right. You need to determine if there is a sizable market out there – just because your mom and you like it doesn’t mean it’s going to sell.”
The inventor’s journey
Regardless of whether an idea is for a gizmo, foodstuff or widget, it generally will take a similar path from conception to construction. It needs to be evaluated from a market perspective, business and investment-opportunity angles, intellectual property issues, and cost and logistics of manufacturing.
That’s where a project profile comes in handy. It’s a way of clarifying goals, expectations, areas where help is needed, and progress already made, Payne said.
Ideas also usually need a prototype. Fab Lab helps with the designing and creating physical or virtual prototypes of potential products. A prototype can be taken to investors to show how it would work and to parts manufacturers show what it should look like once made and get a ball part estimate of production costs.
Cost to develop an idea through Fab Lab are far less than what and “invention help” company would charge, said Herb Goetz, inventor services program manager at Fab Lab.
Fremont inventor Louis Woods, who came up with the idea for a fishing –rod called Enjoy the Fight for those with grip or hand problems such as arthritis, made a homemade prototype that he brought to Fab Lab, according to Payne.
“We were able to leverage our abilities to address all those features that make it a successful product versus just an idea,” Payne said.
Some products can be taken to market relatively inexpensively if your able to position yourself to be in a licensing negotiation early on, according to Goetz. “That’s the way most inventors want to go – license the idea to a company that manufactures and markets the products, and split the royalties from sales. If you want to take the product to market yourself, it gets expensive.”
A patent can take three to five years to obtain, and cost can run up to $30,000, according to Gibby’s book.
With licensing, it’s like a company rets your idea from you. Say you have an idea for a new McDonald’s burger package. “You can go into business yourself and make (the package) but it will be a huge investment for machinery and materials and a huge commitment of time, or you can go to McDonald’s and say ‘Here, this is patented so it’s protected; here is the idea and I will sell it to you and I want one center for every one sold,” said Payne.
Hitzler has licensed two of his inventions’ an adjustable-angle paintbrush and the Parti-Bowl, a snack bowl with an adjustable divider that enables Cheetos, Chex Mix and chip dip to coexist in peace, unlike Packers and Vikings fans.
Necessity: The mother of invention
Four years ago, Vosters the Friendly Bed guy, lived a different life than the one he’s living now as the president of Bill-Ray Home Mobility in Appleton.
He was designing and selling equipment for the paper industry, with nearly 30 years of experience behinds him. He knew his industry by rote. But he knew zero, silch, nada about the health care.
Then his 50-year-old brother-in-law, Bill had a stroke, and Vosters quickly learned the marketplace for bed-area assistance had some serious holes. He was appalled at some of the home medical equipment he saw” flimsy guard rails, chintzy grab-bars and poles intended to help a patient balance but were inherently unstable, he said. Vosters cared for Bill a few days a week and saw what a gargantuan task it was for him to get in and out of bed. The Vosters’ own father, Ray, in his ninth decade, began needing help from Vosters’ mom getting in and out of bed.
“He was living at home but hanging on by his fingernails, “Vosters said. “No one wants to leave their home and their independence, and the need was there for better-quality assistive aids to help in the bed area where mobility needs are the greatest.”
So Vosters came up with his Friendly Bed, a strong steel system of grab bars and poles that fits over any size bed. It doesn’t wobble like some cheaper home health products that are covered by Medicaid (which Friendly Bed isn’t at this point), he said.
“There was nothing like it out on the market, and I knew there wouldn’t be until I brought all the (components) together into one package,” Vosters said. “When you put all of these items together, you get a lot more over all benefit than you would with what you could do with a wobbly bed rail here and a flimsy trapeze bar there and a balance pole from somewhere else. A lot of the benefits only become possible because of tying together all of the elements into one heavy-duty product.”
Vosters is marketing the Friendly Bed across the country, via Internet and trade shows, and he has a showroom in Appleton where people can take a test drive.
His patent is pending, but meanwhile it’s protected from theft. Vosters had his own prototype made thorough contracts in the equipment-manufacturing community. He’s a good example of the self-venturing inventor, having launched Bill-Ray Home Mobility to market the Friendly Bed.
“If it all works out well, you get a bigger share of the pie,” Vosters said. “You are doing absolutely everything – engineering, purchasing, accounting, marketing, packing up boxes answering phones – and doing every aspect of the business yourself, “ Vosters said. “Your head starts spinning with the many hats you wear.”