The business of invention

Inventions have evolved markedly over the years, and so, too, have the processes behind invention itself. Ben Fahy peers into the complex world of innovation to find out if the back-yard ideas man is becoming a thing of the past.

Be it the cerebral thrill, the lure of the elusive million-dollar idea or, as acclaimed cartoonist and sometime inventor Rube Goldberg once said, man's seemingly unending quest to preform the simplest of tasks in the most complicated manner, humans have always been fascinated by invention.

In the 1700's. the influence of the steam engine, which allowed machines machines to complete tasks previously reserved for humans, was the catalyst for the Industrial Revolution, and in the late 1800's, during what was considered a "golden age of invention", a climate of creative and scientific one-upsmanship created a bevy of life-changing inventions, including the lightbulb, the telephone, and the radio.

Since then, society has continued along a path of progress. As a result, the world is perhaps more complex than ever before, yet the steriotype of the eccentric, obsessive and blooody-minded inventor slaving away in his garage day and night remains.

But as big ideas have become the domain of big business, protecting (and eventually selling) the fruits of invention is now a far less romantic, far less organic process than that of invention itself. in other words, the inventors spirit remains, but the path these ideas need to follow has changed remarkedly.

So, as invention has moved away from the back shed and towards the boardroom, or into centres such as the University of Otago's commercialisation arm, Otago Innovations Ltd, is the quintessential ideas man becoming a thing of the past? is grass-roots innovation and lateral thinking enough, or is intellectual property nous and business acumen as - if not more - important than the ideas behind them?

Maitland Maltby, the manager of patents at the Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand (Iponz), says although many individuals still apply for patents, they are in the minority. In fact, he estimates about 90% of approximately 6000 applications received each year in New Zealand are from abroad, coming from multinational corporations that have the funds required to "vigorously protect" their intellectual property in different countries.

"The first piece of advice we give is 'do you want to run a business of your own?'," Mr Maitland says. "If they do, then they can [go through the patent process]. If they don't, then they need to think about licensing, or brand protection... [Individual inventors] usually underestimate the process they have to go through [to protect their idea]."

But whether it was Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, John Britten or the guy who unintentionally devised the Post It note after failing at his attempts to create a stronger adhesive, all inventions great and small, serious or wacky, start with an idea.

The only difference now, Mr Maitland says, is that modern-day invention has been forced to put on an entrepreneur's hat. And this tends to be one of the major problems.

As Geoff Fergusson, spokesman for the New Zealand Investor's Trust, an organisation that aims to "create employment through innovation", says individual inventors tend to become too wrapped up in the grandeur of their own idea, which means they lose objectivity and often neglect the importance of market research.

The technical aspects of a product or process are important, but no matter how good the idea, if there is no market for it, if it doesn't meet an urgent requirement, and if it can't be profitably manufactured, then it isn't worth pursuing. This is why he says patenting should be at the bottom of the inventor's to-do list.

But just like the false, Hollywood -inspired stereotype of the eccentric inventor, Mr Fergusson also feels the "myth of invention" has led to a widespread belief that those who have stumbled upon a bright idea need to "rush out and patent it".

In reality, he estimates more than 95% of all patents fail to return a profit. But, of course, Mr Fergusson says, the patent attorneys who make money from this myth don't want anyone to know the reality.

And here we see the long-standing conflict between creative prowess and financial practicality. As Mr Fergusson says: "Inventors have a distrust of businessmen, and businessmen have a distrust of inventors," which means these two skills often struggle to co-exist in the same human model.

Mr Maitland says individuals "generally don't have the acumen required to make money from [their ideas]", and, if they're out of their depth, need to think about collaborating with those who have a proven history of commercialising products.

"We do have to be careful with the advice we give, because we're the people who maintain the register," Mr Maltby says. "We can't give them advice, but we can tell them where to go to get it if an invention is going to make them a lot of money."

And what Abou tthe many hundreds of seemingly absurd devices that can be found within the world's patent offices, many of which take the definition of "useful" to an entirely different realm?

"We do think some of them might not make any money but that's not for us to say," he says. "What we have to try and make sure of is that no-one else has done it before... A lot of people who have come up with an idea are quite upset when we tell them that someone else has thought of it before them."

There's an old wives' tale about a United States patent commissioner from the 1800's, who, with a distinct lack of prescience, is said to have quit his post because he believed that "everything that could be invented had already been invented".

There's no proof of these words ever being uttered, of course, but true or not, it does raise the question as to whether society could eventually reach a point of innovation stagnation. 

Considering the United States patent office has a backlog of about 500,000 cases, there has been a slight upwards trend in patent applications in New Zealand over the years, and people such as Dunedin inventor Richard Cathro are still  on (and presumably trying to improve) this mortal coil, that assertion seems, ahem, patently ridiculous.

"No, I don't think that will ever happen. There's always more work to do," Mr Cathro says. "As long as there are dreams, I suppose there will always be be people patenting ideas. But I think there's a big difference in filing for a patent, and making a saleable product. You need a huge network of people to do that."

Mr Cathro, an engineer and the man at the helm of Dunedin engineering and innovation company Zoom Tech, is a prime example of what has become an increasingly rare modern-day breed: an individual who understands the process of commercialising ideas, and is now making a living as a full-time inventor (after finishing his first invention as a young man, his father told him "when you've built seven, then I'll call you an inventor").

Today though, invention is a much more complex and formalised realm than it once was, to the point where he says commercial success is as much reliant on good salesmen and lawyers as it is on good ideas.

"It's an amalgamation," he says. "The corporate worlds and the engineering worlds are getting closer and closer."

But necessity, as the famous quote goes, is still the mother of invention. Solving problems is the name of the innovation game, and the process of "turning ideas into reality" can still be an inexplicable, creative, and dare I say magical experience - something evidenced perfectly by what he calls "The Napkin Stage".

"If you've drawn something on a napkin after a few beers to try and explain an idea to your friends, and you've looked at it over the next few weeks and it seems like a good idea, then it's probably a good idea," he says. "Sometimes ideas just happen."

Mr Cathro gives the example of "thermo fusion", which turns plastic bags and left over shrink wrap into hard plastic board and fenceposts. He was involved in the original concept with Farra Engineering and Christchurch company Range Industries. the idea began in a garage with an old sandwich-maker and a few plastic bags.

"If you can make the idea into a reality at a reasonable cost, then the idea starts to take on a life of its own," he says.

Inside his large workshop, there lies a pile of photocopier carcasses that have all been stripped of their parts, and a host of expensive-looking machines presumably intended to preform a range of expensive tasks. It's what you would imagine your stereotypical inventor's habitat to look like, and as you might expect, the man behind it all has the enthusiastic demeanor to match that label.

He's "the kid that's never grown up" and "pulled the pram apart"; his nickname is Gyro Gearloose, after the famous kooky Disney cartoon inventor; the personalized licence plate on his car says "GADGETS"; and, if he needed a specific tool to finish a job, he's the kind of guy who would probably just make it himself.

Among many other inventions, he's created new gearbox parts, spinal implants, polystyrene houses, medical products, bicycles, devices that change the taste of water, mag whels for trolley cars, and a simple wine-glass holder that sits atop a bottle. His longest project took eight years, where as the shortest, a piece of jewellery made from leftover titanium on December 24 as a Christmas present for his partner, took just one day.

Although Mr Cathro hints at being behind some very profitable products, both of his own and for various companies, he isn't willing to talk about the financial rewards his ideas have brought.

But big or small, long or short, he says the crux of invention is being able to "think outside the square of how and why".

"It's not easy continually creating a product out of the square," he says. "But there's nothing more satisfying than being somewhere and seeing a finished article that you might have worked on five or six years ago."


Ben Fahy

Otago Daily Times

Weekend Article - 2006