- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2001

Frampton Ellis lives in an apartment filled with sneakers. These shoes that now take up much of the cabinet space in his Arlington town house have provided Mr. Ellis with a very comfortable life.

A light bulb went on over Mr. Ellis's head about 13 years ago. He came up with the idea for a new kind of shoe sole that mimicked the design of the human foot. His goal was to create a shoe that would limit ankle injuries. He patented the invention, and after seven long years and a licensing agreement with Adidas, it appeared on sneakers worn by everyone from children on the high school track team to Steffi Graf at the 1996 U.S. Open.

"I thought I had a good idea," says the Chevy Chase native. "The question was whether anyone would take the idea and run."

Adidas did. Now, Mr. Ellis is a millionaire who left his job with the government to be a full-time inventor. He has seven U.S. patents so far, all sneaker-related, and is now trying to develop a new kind computer security system which he says he hopes to patent in the near future.

The reality

Mr. Ellis was lucky. Or maybe just really smart. He was one of a minority of independent inventors who have patented an original idea and seen it take off in the marketplace.

Independent inventors like Mr. Ellis are responsible for 15 percent of all U.S. patents. Fewer than 5 percent of those patents are ever produced in the marketplace.

"Most people get the patent and stop because they can't get the commercialization," Mr. Ellis says.

The numerous forms and arcane requirements of the patent process often frustrate independent inventors. But getting a patent is not all that hard, inventors say. It is on the marketing end where independent inventors fall short. Many fellow inventors simply don't do their homework to find if their ideas are marketable, says Raoul Drapeau, an independent inventor in Vienna.

Over the past 20 years, Mr. Drapeau has successfully marketed several inventions himself, including the world's first mass-marketed computer printer and a flow-rack picking system that is still in use at many warehouses. In the past, he founded or headed four different companies where he marketed his own inventions and others. He also wrote a book, "The Art and Methods of Inventing."

Currently, he is the principal of Product Concepts Co., an invention-and-development company, while serving as an adjunct engineering professor at Northern Virginia Community College. His latest work involves trying to market an exercise machine that simulates paddling a kayak.

"There are some inventions where you just say 'Wow, this is a clever technological idea, but I can't imagine anyone who'd buy it,' " Mr. Drapeau says. "You should do as much market research as you can to prove that you have a viable invention. One of the standard difficulties is that they will have an invention that is technologically brilliant but useless in the marketplace."

Determining whether an invention will sell is tougher than it sounds, experienced inventors say. All inventors want to believe their ideas are winners, and the opinions of family and friends are often unrealistically positive.

"The inventor loves it, their mother loves it, their neighbors love it and they move forward on something 90 percent of the world doesn't want," says Joanne Hayes-Rines, editor of the magazine Inventor's Digest.

Inventors need to look not only at whether their idea will sell, but whether they will garner a profit, Ms. Hayes-Rines says. All too often, she says, inventors move ahead on inventions that might cost $10 to make but sell for only $20.

Even if the idea meets that criterion, Mr. Drapeau says many inventors lack the skills or the personality to effectively promote the product.

"Unfortunately, many inventors are introverts," he says. "It's counterintuitive for them to get on the phone."

Where to go

Inventors rarely are able to patent and successfully market an invention themselves. Getting unbiased, expert advice is a necessity, successful inventors say.

The most prominent support group for independent inventors in this area is the Inventors' Network of the Capital Area (INCA). For a small annual fee, members can attend monthly meetings featuring expert speakers and network with other area inventors.

"First, we provide a forum for members to tell other interested parties what they are doing and ask for help in areas that are problematic," says INCA President Bill Kuntz. "We provide support and nurturing."

Both Mr. Ellis and Mr. Drapeau are members, and both say the group is a great place to get honest feedback about their inventions.

Robert Lougher, president of the United Inventors Association and the Inventors' Awareness Center, says regional groups provide and invaluable resource.

"If your product has no merit, they'll tell you that," Mr. Lougher says. "And they'll tell you why."

Mr. Kuntz says INCA members all want to see inventions succeed.

"I have never heard a member say that an idea is crap," he says. "We might ask about the size of the potential market, who would buy the item, how is it better than what is currently available … and a host of other questions that will guide a fellow member to consider the downside that may have been missed."

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office created its own Office of Independent Inventor Programs in 1998, to provide a direct channel between Patent officials and independent inventors.

"Often, the problem is that independent inventors don't have the foggiest idea what they're doing," says Richard Apley, the director of the Office of Independent Inventor Programs. "A lot of them have good inventions, but they don't know where to go for help."

The Patent Office has an online database of every U.S. patent, so inventors can check to make sure they aren't wasting their time working on an invention that's already been patented.

Inventors say publications like Inventor's Digest can be very helpful, because they often include advice columns from inventors who have had some marketing success.

What not to do

Many independent inventors learn the hard way that money in doesn't necessarily mean money out. Experienced inventors say the worst thing an independent inventor can do is to pay an "invention promotion" company to market the product.

"If you see one of those, run like the wind," Mr. Drapeau says.

The problem with such firms, invention experts say, is that they often promise to help market an invention before they even know what it is, and have no qualms about taking money from inventors whose ideas they know will likely fail in the marketplace. The Office of Independent Inventor Programs issues warnings against companies that are suspected of scamming naive inventors. Investor's Digest Magazine publishes a "Red Flag" list of companies to avoid. Often, these companies advertise on television and radio, and have governmental-sounding names.

The Federal Trade Commission recently has attempted to crack down on such companies. Invention Submission Corp., one of the world's largest invention promotion companies, two years ago paid $1.2 million to the FTC to settle a case involving scores of customers who claimed to have fallen victim to scam artists.

Another common mistake new inventors make is that they spend money developing prototypes and marketing their invention before they are familiar with the process.

"[Inventors] need to really know their thing is going to do something before they put it out there," Ms. Hayes-Rines says. "The biggest mistake is people just jump into things too quickly. You really should learn as much as you can about the process before you spend a dime."

Inventors vs. corporations

Mr. Ellis's success in gaining a licensing agreement with a major corporation isn't common. He was fortunate to gain credibility with Adidas because he was friends with a consultant for the company.

Though his invention paid off eventually, Mr. Ellis says he spent seven years and thousands of dollars before signing a licensing agreement with Adidas, and it took nearly 10 years before he made any money.

"I was limping along financially for quite a while," he says. "The reality is that if you hit the jackpot and get really lucky, you're going to be spending a lot of time and money."

Corporations have their own research and development departments, and generally have a lot of faith in their own employees.

"They have, or at least think they have, the pulse on what consumers want," Ms. Hayes-Rines says.

This puts independent inventors at a disadvantage.

"There's become a huge gap between the corporations and independent inventors," Mr. Lougher says.

Mr. Lougher says companies frequently are presented with unoriginal or unrefined inventions submitted by independent inventors.

"The market has been flooded with nonsense," he says. "Manufacturers don't want to sift through the products."

Even Mr. Ellis says he understands the viewpoint of corporations.

"Corporations have an impossible job," he says. "The average idea doesn't go anywhere because it's not a good idea."

Independent inventors know they may be at a disadvantage, but that isn't stopping them. Many say being independent of a corporation can be advantageous because it allows inventors more control over the product.

"Their struggle is different, there's no question about it," Ms. Hayes-Rines says. "But people come up with just amazing products."

Popular toys including the Furby and Beanie Babies were produced by independent inventors, she notes, while corporations have had their share of failures.

"With all the expertise at their disposal, corporations still make flops," she says.

Often, an invention has trouble taking off in the marketplace because of a close-minded public. Terrence Winston, an INCA member and former police officer, invented a new kind of police baton that he hopes will decrease instances of police brutality. His Trex Control Baton has a curved shape with a rectangular handle and is designed to help police officers use leverage, rather than striking action, to subdue a suspect.

"It's designed to be a kinder, gentler baton," says Mr. Winston, a Waldorf, Md., resident.

Even though the baton has been well received by his inventing peers, and was even shown on the popular television shows "Homicide" and "Oz," Mr. Winston says it's been difficult getting police departments to give his baton a try; so far just one department in the United States has agreed to use the baton on a trial basis.

While Mr. Ellis works even harder to make the perfect sneaker, and Mr. Drapeau strives to hit the jackpot with his kayak exercise machine, both are looking for other inventions to explore.

"The one characteristic we have is the ability to see a problem and a solution to a problem that other people have missed," Mr. Drapeau says. "It's like disease. You can't turn it off."

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