- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 1, 2005

Todd Basche wanted to make the combinations for the locks he used on the gates around his family’s swimming pool easier to remember.

His solution: Use letters instead of numbers.

“I realized if I don’t set the thing to “0000” or “1234” it’s going to be hard for everybody to remember this,” he said.

Mr. Basche’s idea is one of four office products scheduled to hit Staples store shelves this summer. His invention, the WordLock, won first place last year in the company’s first “Invention Quest” contest.

The contest, which sought product ideas from self-proclaimed inventors, received more than 8,300 submissions. The office-supply giant now is hosting another contest.

“Invention Quest” is one example of the rapidly growing trend of companies ditching the “not invented here” mentality and reaching out to independent inventors. The change is partly the result of research and development cutbacks in the 1990s, innovation analysts say.

“It’s quite different than what existed 20 years ago in terms of major corporations and independent inventors,” said Joanne Hayes-Rines, publisher and editor of Inventors’ Digest, a trade magazine for inventors.

Companies ranging from consumer-product giant Procter & Gamble to Dial Corp., the maker of Dial soap, have turned to similar contests to generate ideas for new products.

Inventors say such contests help bridge the gap between having an idea for a product and figuring out how to get it manufactured.

Taking ideas “to those next steps to really turn it into a product is not a simple task,” said Mr. Basche, 50, who is the senior vice president of a Silicon Valley company that creates technology for protecting multimedia.

As last year’s “Invention Quest” winner, Mr. Basche won $25,000 and the chance to have Staples bring his invention to the market.

Nine semifinalists won $5,000 prizes, and three of those products were picked up by Staples.

The products include a stapler that fits into the palm of a hand (Handy Strap Stapler), rubber bands with labels attached to them (Rubber Bandits) and miniature bulletin boards that can be placed on small surfaces (TackDots).

Staples is expecting the number of submissions to exceed 10,000 this year, said Mike Nelson, vice president of Staples brands. Submissions are due June 1.

The company has not limited the amount of time it will dedicate to marketing the new products, Mr. Nelson said, but it will alter marketing approaches depending how well they sell.

The idea to start the contest came when Staples was preparing to revamp its private brand of products, Mr. Nelson said.

Other office-supply companies, including OfficeMax and Office Depot, said they have not considered holding such a contest.

Large companies have become more willing in the past four years to collaborate with independent inventors because they are more business savvy, said Robert Lougher, executive director of the United Inventors Association.

Inventors are “more in tune to corporate expectations,” he said. “The majority of them are now taking the right steps to develop [their] idea into a new product.”

Although contests are a boon to independent inventors, participants should take steps to protect their ideas by having a patent, trademark or copyright, said Jeffrey Dollinger, president of Invent Now, a subsidiary of the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Mr. Basche has a patent and a trademark on WordLock. He spent about $20,000 on the patent, which took four years to obtain, he said.

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