- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 25, 2006

They also toil who strive to get their inventions into the public domain.

The legions of Washington’s inventing worker bees include members of a local club called the Inventors Network of the Capital Area (INCA), a creative, eclectic group whose basic goals are patenting ideas and building prototypes. Both involve considerable amounts of time, money and skill.

Glen Kotapish of Baltimore, club president, estimates that just 3 percent to 8 percent of 100 current dues-paying members have made more money than they have invested in their inventions. Struggles along the way to successful manufacture are legion. Becoming one of several hundred applicants whose requests are approved weekly by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria is only the first step, and it certainly is not the easiest.

Mr. Kotapish, founder and president of Planet Patent, a professional patent research firm, cautions against claims made by some marketing firms that promise more than a reasonable chance of success because “a lot of these companies oversell their services.”

“Only 2 percent of patents, or maybe less, get a manufacturer — including those from big companies — and it is much harder for individual inventors,” says Steve Barbarich, a marketing specialist who is president of Inventors Publishing and Research in San Francisco and author of a manual for amateurs about the various processes involved. His firm arranges licensing — sells ideas to companies — and introduces a few products itself.

While INCA members’ inventions seldom include life-changing measures of a kind to ensure their immortality, they display great imaginative fervor and — just as important — diligence of a kind that would make Thomas Edison proud.

A sampling of their ventures shows great variety, with many of their projects building upon and improving a few already on the market. In many cases, the stories behind their work — including the struggles to bring a product to market — can be as compelling as the actual designs.

Mr. Kotapish, whose background is in aerospace manufacturing engineering, is most recently the co-inventor of a magnetic brain wave stimulator designed to enhance sleep. As shown on the network’s Web site (dcinventors.org), other ideas have included a forearm splint system for preventing and treating carpal tunnel syndrome, a bubble ring generator, a naturally contoured shoe sole, and the Headbone and Backbone supportive pillow rests. (The Headbone is an adjustable device that hangs over a seat back to support the user’s head and neck.) Nearly all have Web sites.

The pillow rests were devised by Victoria Closson, a graphic designer from Southern Maryland who originally sought a more flexible head support in her car. The bubble ring generator, created by David Whiteis of Germantown, releases underwater circles of pure, clean air similar to smoke rings. It is used by swimmers and scuba divers for fun and games but also has proved effective, Mr. Whiteis says, as an enrichment device for captive dolphins.

Another practical item is an emergency traction device designed by U.S. Department of Education accountant Palmer Robeson of McLean. It is easier to install than tire chains when snow, ice and mud are on the road. Mr. Robeson has three patents on this single invention; the third is an improvement over the first two.

“Sort of like Henry Ford, who started out with the Model A and wasn’t happy until the Model T,” he says.

He made his first prototype in his garage and, with the help of engineers in Wisconsin, is preparing a “more professional looking” one that he says will enable him “to go to a manufacturer and say, ‘I have a way for you to make money,’ then license my invention to them and have them give me royalties.”

So goes the dream of the diligent and the lucky. The design won him $10,000 in a competition six years ago — helping offset the $20,000 to $30,000 he has invested to date. He was lucky to get help along the way from a neighbor who was a mechanical engineer by training and later a patent attorney.

The neighbor referred him to a patent agent who, according to Mr. Robeson, can be hired at less expense than a lawyer to submit patent applications.

“The difficulty is writing claims in the applications and making them stick; only about 50 percent of applications are approved,” he says.

Curiously, two members’ projects have to do with fish. One is a prototype for a new type of swim fin called Mor-Fins, which are shaped like a fish’s tail. The design already has won an award. Another, called the weedless fish structure, is a device for attracting and restraining fish.

John Melius of Waldorf, Md., an inventor and artist, swims three miles three times a week but wanted to go faster, which is partly how the idea for the innovative swim fin came to him. Scuba Diving magazine last year called Mor-Fins “a paradigm shift” in design.

“It took a long time to get the quality I wanted,” he says. “I thought it would be marketing that was the trouble, or the patent search. But I found if you have something novel, it is relatively easy to get a patent. I’ve learned to write my own. When you go to patents, it is like another language.”

He can produce only handmade versions so far — “a slow job, only six to eight pairs a day” — but is exploring manufacturing with an injection mold using Monprene, a trademarked material often used in scuba-diving equipment.

For the Fulbrooks of Fairfax City, inventing is a family affair. Jim Fulbrook is a neurobiologist who is the father of sons David, 17, and Jason, 15, and a prior patent holder in his own right. He credits David with the original idea for their weedless fish structure and says Jason was intimately involved in the patent search process.

The acrylic device, a simple mechanical apparatus still in the prototype stage, is designed to look like vegetation — the better to attract and conceal both game and feeder fish.

Jason was in the hospital being treated for leukemia when they had a brainstorming session and came up with this and other notions, Mr. Fulbrook says.

“I teach my kids that virtually everything can be improved upon in structure, function and procedures. … We have a long way to go, but my two sons have already learned a lot of tangibles about what is involved.”

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