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.
"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.
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.
Patent application: 20090032517 (pending)
Product: "Ski integrated solar power system"
Sopuch's cold feet create potential skiing solution
Michael Sopuch thought twice when he was a kid and his parents offered to take him skiing. Even then, he hated cold toes.
"Its probably the number one complaint of all skiers, especially novice skiers," says Sopuch. "That's why you see everyone sitting [in the lodge] by the fireplace with their feet in the air. They're warming up their toes."
Keeping this in mind, Sopuch and a friend began brainstorming ways to keep their toes warm during long days on the slopes. Sopuch knew inventors had dreamed up a variety of solutions to the dilemma over the decades, including battery-powered heating coils placed within ski boots and chemical heating packets, but "they're just a pain," he says.
That's when Sopuch, a novice inventor who, in addition to owning a Missoula auto repair shop, is running for office in House District 98, got an idea: a solar-powered system capable of heating a ski boot. By affixing thin solar panels atop a ski, he says the contraption taps a continuous flow of sun power, which is then channeled into heating elements inside a boot.
"This thing [solar panel] is stuck to the top of your ski. It's always there. And all you have to do is step into your bindings and plug it in," says Sopuch. "I mean, it's pretty simple."
The prototype itself only took an hour to develop. The toughest part of the project was filling out the reams of paperwork required by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which, once an application is submitted, legally protects the inventor's creation.
"They are not kidding around," Sopuch says. "If it's not double-spaced they'll send it back to you."
Sopuch's patent application focuses on the problem of frigid feet, but he says the technology has broader applications. It could be equipped with a universal jack capable of harnessing electricity into a range of electronic devices, allowing people to plug in while they frolic in far-out places.
"If you're in the backcountry, for instance, you could power iPods or charge cell phones, things like that," he says, "and you wouldn't even have to be wearing your skis."
The invention provides creature comforts, but Sopuch's most proud of how, by harnessing renewable energy, it also constitutes a simple step toward sustainability.
"The main thing is keeping batteries out of landfills," he says. "If we can keep batteries out of landfill for the things we're doing for recreation, I think that would be a small step in the right direction."
Sopuch successfully tested the prototype at home in Missoula. He has yet to take it into the backcountry for a hardcore trial run, but he says a manufacturer has already expressed interest in marketing the technology for commercial sale.
Sopuch says he doesn't have any great aspirations of getting rich off his foot-warming concept. The solar boot idea simply resonated with him, and prompted him to pursue his first patent. The same inspiration could happen to anyone.
"It all starts at the idea. And everybody has one," he says.
The key, of course, is to pursue that idea and not get cold feet.
Patent No.: 4676464
Product: "Golf bag with integral stand"
Sun Mountain Sports scores a hole in one
On Missoula's Northside, about a pitching wedge away from the railroad tracks, sits a nondescript brick building home to a company that, since the mid-1980s, has made countless golfers around the country who are already labeled lazy appear even more so.
Sun Mountain Sports holds claim to the invention of golf bag legs, which forever changed the game of golf—or at least eliminated the physical exertion required to lean over and pick up the thing that holds the golf clubs.
"Many people to this day hold that as the biggest innovation in the history of the golf bag," says Sun Mountain spokesman Steve Snyders. "If you go out to the area golf course, if someone's carrying a bag, 90 percent of the time it's going to have legs."
And thanks to golf bag legs (or "golf bag with integral stand," as far as the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is concerned), Sun Mountain "went from being one guy selling golf bags out of the back of his station wagon," Snyders says, "to being a company with national distribution in really short order."
That one guy was, and is, Missoula's Rick Reimers, the founder and CEO of Sun Mountain, and the man behind some three dozen patents for golf related products. By patenting golf bag legs in 1985, and attaching them to his revolutionary Eclipse Bag, Reimers set his company on course to becoming a major player in the golf products industry.
"It wasn't their first bag, but it was their first bag that gained national attention." Snyders says. "It really set them up."
The company now employs about 140 people in Missoula, most at its facility out by the Missoula airport. Another 40 independent sales reps peddle the company's products around the country. Snyders says Sun Mountain sells hundreds of thousands of golf bags every year.
Reimers, who was unavailable for an interview, started Sun Mountain in the late '70s, and moved the company to Missoula in 1984, partly because of the workforce's knowledge of sporting equipment.
"The innovations that he incorporated into golf bags, some of them are borrowed from things that have been done in backpacking," Snyders says. "The idea was that people here have a sense of building and working with outdoor equipment that needs to be built to a really high standard, and that was appealing to him."
A search of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office database shows the range of Reimers' innovations. He patented the "self propelled golf bag cart," the "thermoforming manufacturing process for golf bags," a "putter alignment system," the "collapsible golf cart," an "adjustable balance weighting system for golf clubs," among many others. This spring, the company's launching its Micro E Cart, a power-assisted golf bag cart, described in Reimers' patent this way:
"The cart is a three wheel push cart with a front disc motor mounted in the front wheel...Speed and motor controls including preset distance controls provide superior control of motion for the user. The handle is provided with a dashboard console including numerous useful accessories."
"It's like a self-propelled lawn mower," Synders says.
There's an idea: a self-propelled golf bag cart with a built-in blade to cut the grass when you're in the deep rough. Maybe not. But it seems you shouldn't put anything past Reimers.
Patent No.: D522914
Product: "Homunculus constructed from common rubberbands"
Stretching to make Rubber Rubberband Man a success
A-ha moments hit inventors at all sorts of unexpected times. Shunpei Yamazaki, a Japanese researcher believed to be the most prolific inventor in the world with more than 1,800 patents, reportedly finds his inspiration after he naps. Thomas Edison, the most famous American inventor, made a key improvement to the light bulb—carbonized bamboo filament—after using a bamboo rod during a fishing trip in what's now Wyoming. And former Missoula resident S. Matt Read—better know as simply "Smatt"—discovered his most famous invention after hours of largely failing at making a simple ball of rubber bands.
"To say it was an accident would be an understatement," admits Smatt.
That fateful day at the University of Texas ended with Smatt creating a rubber band sculpture in the shape of a person. Aside from having something cool to show to his dorm mates, it went absolutely nowhere. Years later, Smatt revived the idea of his rubber band man and gave one each to his nieces and nephew for Christmas. They stopped playing with the elastic toy by lunch. But with those gifts Smatt unintentionally created a focus group, and when he heard about the rubber band men becoming hits at various show-and-tells months later, Smatt recognized an opportunity.
According to the patent application, Smatt was ready to peddle a "Homunculus constructed from common rubberbands" to the masses. Forget SpongeBob and Elmo; Smatt and his brother, Charlie, envisioned children playing with Homunculi—the word, by the way, means "diminutive human beings without any deformity of physiology"—in family rooms across the country. Okay, maybe it wasn't going to be for "the masses" or a staple in "family rooms across the country," but the brothers had hope. Their patent was approved in 2006, nearly two years after it was first submitted. Smatt streamlined the production of the figurines. The brothers created a company, Smattworks Inc., with a base in Smatt's new hometown, Missoula. And they came up with a marketable name for the toy: Rubber Rubberband Man.
"There wasn't any honeymoon period," recalls Smatt. "From the moment we decided to do this, it was all work. We're not professional toy manufacturers and knew almost nothing about the industry or retail in general. We had to work really hard."
For the next few years, Rubber Rubberband Man consumed a lot of Charlie and Smatt's time. They attended tradeshows, worked on distribution deals and promoted the heck out of the toy. Smatt successfully applied for a second patent for a "canine figurine constructed from common rubber bands." And their book, Rubb-Origami: The Art of Creating Rubber Band Sculptures, helped spur sales and eventually rivaled the elastic men and dogs in popularity. Charlie, who writes software in Palo Alto, Calif., and handles the company's logistics, estimates they sold more than 1,000 copies of the 60-page book worldwide.
"We certainly didn't profit off of any of it," Charlie says, "but any time we took it to the streets or to a tradeshow, the interest was high and sales were good."
Yet Rubber Rubberband Man's lifespan didn't stretch quite as long as the toy itself. Eventually, sales hit a plateau. Different projects cropped up. Smatt, who worked numerous jobs in Missoula to make ends meet, including writing a games column for the Missoulian, moved away in 2007. Charlie kept up with orders and tried to generate more publicity, but things petered out by last year.
"I see failure as a positive thing," Smatt says. "It means you had the guts to try. With my Rubber Rubberband Man, my patent application got rejected a few times...Failure is an education. What you do with that is up to you."
For Smatt, it meant moving on to a new, equally different project: He's currently hiking the perimeter of his native Texas. When the Indy caught up with him to talk about his patents, he had been resting at Caprock Canyons State Park south of Amarillo, detouring a bit to the state's interior. Through 173 days, Smatt estimates he's trekked just more than 1,000 miles of the roughly 3,000-mile journey. He hopes to be done sometime next year.
"No one thought this was a good idea," he says. "My family and friends—the majority did not support this."
Undeterred, Smatt's set on reacquainting himself with his home state. He's paying for the trip in part by writing a syndicated column about his travels; local papers like the Texarkana Gazette and Brownfield News run him regularly. (You can also find his blog at texasperimeterhike.blogspot.com.) At night, he camps by the side of the road, crashes with friends (new and old) or rides "the couch-surfing network." On the road, he eats a lot of peanut butter, raisins and bread. Naturally, he's traveling light, which means no Rubber Rubberband Man to keep him company. But that doesn't mean he's done with the creation. In fact, during his stay at Caprock, he made a modified version as a gift for a park employee.
"I haven't given up on him as a concept," Smatt says. "I still keep him in mind as a fictional character. I wouldn't say he's destined for greatness, but I'm not done with him yet."
Patent application: 20070074359 (denied)
Product: "Teaching tootbrush"
Learning a lesson from the Teachbrush
Imagine a toothbrush that talks and encourages kids to keep brushing.
"Three minutes. Get going!"
"Let's get those teeth clean!"
"One minute left. You're doing great!"
"Now reach those back teeth. Good job. Thirty seconds left!"
It comes as no surprise that a certified life/spiritual coach, Theresa O'Lynn, conceived of "The Teachbrush Toothbrush." She came up with the idea when she realized a talking toothbrush might be more effective for her son than "mommy always being there telling him [how to brush] over and over."
"I wanted to have a toothbrush where the novelty wouldn't wear off so quickly," says O'Lynn in a thick Irish accent that reveals her Northern Ireland upbringing. "I didn't want cartoon characters on it, because kids get over it and that's it. Rather than flashing lights and music, I wanted a voice of positive reinforcement."
Unfortunately, O'Lynn's brilliant idea, like so many others, never saw the light of day, nor the inside of a kid's mouth. In 2004, just months before O'Lynn submitted her patent application to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, an inventor from Tokyo, Toshinori Kumagai, received a patent for a "toothbrush assembly with sound generating function." Kumagai's patent went on to explain the sound would provide "excitement and entertainment to a user and [encourage] a young child to brush his or her teeth." The ideas were too similar. Kumagai beat O'Lynn to it.
So go the travails of inventors. And so went O'Lynn's dream of making a million bucks. It appears Kumagai didn't cash in either, though, since the product, at least as far as O'Lynn knows, hasn't been widely produced.
"That should be on the shelf by now," O'Lynn says of her first and only attempt to patent something. "It really should. Why it's not on the shelf I don't know."
O'Lynn blames the Pennsylvania-based patent company she hired to develop a Teachbrush prototype and proposal package for not being aware of Kumagai's claim to the idea. And she blames herself for not being diligent enough.
"I feel like I handed the idea over to this company and said, 'Go for it,' and I took a back seat," she says.
But O'Lynn, ever upbeat, has other ideas in the works.
First, there's the step garden, a series of flowerpots that sit on steps outside a home. It's designed for people who don't have space for a garden, and the pots are connected by plastic tubes, which protect them from being accidentally kicked over and allows water to trickle down from pot to pot. The step garden is also designed to fold into itself for easy storage.
Then there's the "Flush and Brush"—bristles built into the underside of a toilet rim. When the toilet's flushed, the bristles move down and clean the toilet bowl, aided by a cleaning solution in the toilet. It's designed for airports, hospitals and schools.
"Who wants to clean the damn toilet, you know what I'm saying?" says O'Lynn.
Or maybe O'Lynn will patent a sofa with a big drawer that slides out from beneath the cushions for storage.
"I'm looking for something to work for me...," O'Lynn says. "Someone can make a pet rock, stick eyes on a rock, and it will sell millions, you know?"
O'Lynn's passion to invent has been emboldened by her belief that innovation is in her genes. When her father learned of the Teachbrush, he told her he tried patenting a smokeless chimney in the late 1960s. And her son, now 10, dreams up wild ideas, too. "Third time's a charm, Mom," he tells her.
But O'Lynn's ideas are only "extracurricular activities," as she calls them. Her main focus is her Missoula-based life coaching business, Talk About Life, LLC. She also recently published a book titled, If YOU Are Someone Who...On the Humorous Side!: An Acknowledgement and Life Lesson for Each of You.
Clearly, O'Lynn is in the business of morale boosting, whatever form it takes—toothbrush or otherwise.
"The world is in no state to be declining positive change of any kind," she says.
A quick search for local connections on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website turns up about 387 hits from 1976 to the present. Missoula has yet to see a patent for a shrink ray (warning: obscure Honey, I Shrunk the Kids reference.) but we found plenty of kooky Wayne Szalinksi-caliber inventors in our midst. Here's an extra taste of what your neighbors are up to.
Patent No.: D594705
Inventor: Linda McComas
Product: Plate with caddy. McComas essentially combined the age-old concept of the plate with every couch surfer's favorite friend: the cup holder. Finally, an answer to that precarious backyard balancing act of barbeque and beer can.
Patent No.: 20070000033
Inventor: Philip Allan Dixon
Product: Periscope swim goggles. Using fiber optic cable and a viewer molded directly to the eyepiece, Dixon's goggles would help swimmers locate landmarks without lifting their heads and losing their rhythm. And just when we thought Michael Phelps couldn't get any faster.
Patent No.: 7467904
Inventor: David Wager
Product: Tree-ring chronology pens, key chains and other everyday items. Odds are you were counting tree rings with grandpa long before you could spell dendrochronology, but did you ever think about what happened in each of those years? Wager's invention simultaneously sheds light on forest ecology and historic events. At the very least, the pens are snazzier than a Bic.
Patent No.: 7048091
Inventor: John Maguire
Product: Portable lifeguard chair. We're surprised this idea is relatively new, since backyard pools have been in vogue for at least half a century. Maguire's designed the same towering seat common at municipal swimming pools, only this version's got wheels. Beats the heck out of those flimsy aluminum lawn chairs.
Patent No.: 6971963
Inventor: Jeffrey Abel
Product: Wrist toy. In the interests of rendering fathers obsolete, Abel's invention would allow kids to play catch by themselves. It's essentially a baseball attached to the wrist by an elastic string. Perfect for those sunny months when parenting comes second to the Osprey game.