Masters of Invention 

The stories behind five of Missoula's most brilliant and bizarre patent applications

We've all seen the late-night commercials for InventHelp or some other company promising to help budding inventors protect their next big idea. Your first step to making millions, the ads promise, is as easy as a phone call. Look, even this numbnut wearing a Hawaiian shirt hit it big with his idea for the Splash Wash, a car wash for tricycles (actual example). And this regular housewife turned her "Eureka!" moment into The Chilly Bone (also real), a frozen dog toy now available in pet stores across the country. Have you reinvented the wheel? Call now!

Sarcastic enthusiasm aside, these commercials run nonstop for a reason: People call. People have ideas. People are constantly thinking up the next amazing something that will inevitably garner millions in intellectual property rights. Or at least cover the costs—roughly $1,000, not including lawyer fees—to apply for the patent.

In 2008, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office reported receiving 496,886 patent applications. That number dropped last year—for the first time in 13 years, thanks to the recession—but the office still collected more than 485,500 filings. Thirty-seven of them track back to Missoula, according to a search of the office's online database.

Some of those 37 applications—and hundreds more from locals over the last two decades—hold a story similar to the Splash Wash dude, and we wanted to hear it. So, we discarded the professional researchers from campus and bypassed the wonky corporate stuff, and tracked down a handful of inventors hatching new ideas in our backyard. Their stories of success and disappointment, hope and frustration, show just what's at stake when someone has enough gumption to take an idea, however random, and try to make something of it.

Patent No.: 5887510

Product: "Device for making coffee"

Pressed into making a better backcountry brew

Not even the light-switches in Mark Porter's garage are safe these days. The self-proclaimed tinkerer admits it with a smile, but there's no joke in his face. He's rigged the lights with two wireless remotes—one for his car and one for his wife's.

But Missoulians won't recognize Porter for his electrical ingenuity. His innovation manifests itself more in the morning routines of coffee addicts across the globe, those dissatisfied with the bitter, flat taste of Folger's instant. Porter, 45, is the brains behind the Big Sky Bistro—the go-mug with its own French press—and a host of spin-off products. The patents evolved from a simple musing to Porter's own small business, which he sold to Liquid Planet proprietor Scott Billadeau in 2004.

click to enlarge Mark Porter now operates Campus Drive, a company specializing in licensed collegiate apparel. - PHOTO BY ALEX SAKARIASSEN

"The best thing about this whole process is if you can come up with an organic idea and you can take it all the way through," Porter says. "Building a product that works, and testing it, and testing the hell out of it, and making it work better, and taking it to market, and actually selling it. That's how this should work."

Porter now operates Campus Drive, a company specializing in licensed collegiate apparel. Since the various incarnations of the Big Sky Bistro mug changed hands, he's watched his invention sweep across the United States and into European markets he could never fully tap himself. He says there's nothing more gratifying that seeing someone in a foreign city walk by carrying something you made.

Porter didn't always intend for his java-savvy patents to become so far-flung and grand. The original idea came from a personal need for a light, durable coffee-making system for Porter's backcountry trips—something he quickly discovered didn't exist.

"When I couldn't find what I really wanted—and honest to God, man, I couldn't have had less money at the time—I just really wanted to see it," Porter says. "At first my goal for the whole thing was to make just one that works. From that, we started this whole business."

Still, Porter says it took years to refine his ideas. He first developed drawings for the Big Sky Bistro in the early 1990s, and after considerable tweaking filed a patent. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office approved his application in 1999, and Porter began modestly distributing his mugs around Missoula.

click to enlarge news_feature1-2.jpg

But Porter considers himself lucky to have gotten that far. The realm of inventors is full of stories about ripped-off patents and corporate scrooging. He's surprised no one stole his idea before it became a reality.

"Especially if you're going up against somebody bigger than you, you're going to get squashed like a grape," Porter says of patent infringement litigation. "If someone like Starbucks or whomever came along and loved the idea, they could take it 'cause they could just bury me."

Almost a decade of Porter's life was "absolutely consumed by the Big Sky Bistro and the derivatives of that." He traveled to nearly 20 trade shows a year, from Washington state to Germany, trying to peddle his product. But the process of securing investors and suppliers didn't hinder his creativity. By 2007, the patent office approved Porter's second application—a mug with a removable canister. Like the lightweight French press, Porter says the idea came from personal need.

"Second cup of coffee," he says. "You always need a second cup of coffee. One cup of coffee's just not enough."

Each of Porter's battles to push his coffee products through to market paid off. Not in a financial sense, necessarily, but in the satisfaction Porter recalls in receiving a slip of paper with a red ribbon in the mail. Though Billadeau's company, Planetary Designs LLC, now owns the patents, Porter says he has a copy of the first one sitting in his deposit box, "just so my kids have proof I actually did something."

"It's not like the money was secondary or anything," Porter says, "but it was just a really great space and it's allowed me to continue to stay in a space that you get to define every day."

In other words: Look out, light-switches. Porter's tinkering is far from over.

—Alex Sakariassen

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