Masters of Invention 

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

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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.

click to enlarge Michael Sopuch, owner of a Missoula auto repair shop, aims to solve the problem of skiing with cold feet. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS

"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.

—Jessica Mayrer

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.

click to enlarge News_Feature1-4.jpg

"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.

click to enlarge News_Feature1-5.jpg

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.

—Matthew Frank

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