Walk onto just about any jobsite and you're likely to find a tool that won't be on any shelf in any store. It's a tool of invention, born of necessity and forged by a blowtorch or welding iron in someone's shop, or held together with bailing wire or duct tape from the trailer. It's a one-of-a-kind solution to a singular problem on an anywhere jobsite. Chances are, that's as far as it will go.
But then there are guys like Larry Martin, a railwork carpenter who fashioned a new tool that takes the guesswork out of staircase layouts. Or Stephen Gass, a former patent attorney and lifelong woodworker with a Ph.D. in physics who used a hot dog to stop a saw blade in 10 milliseconds.
These inventors, and many more like them, have expanded their ideas for new and better tools from a single jobsite or weekend shop to the cusp of commercial availability. Universally optimistic despite odds that are historically against them, they pursue dreams of financial security, a better life, and a lasting legacy.
Inspiration and Perspiration
The fact is, less than 3 percent of the 350,000 patents issued last year by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, much less those imagined on a lunch break or lashed together on a tailgate, ever made it to the market. Even fewer will recoup the money their inventors have invested.
Tough odds, however, are hardly a detriment to tool inventors. "I've never been able to work it where I sell an idea to someone who'll pay me or make money for me," says Brian Giffin, who has three tools in various stages of retail availability. His Jack Rabbit combination drill-screw bit, for instance, is currently waiting for an infusion of cash to help push it into the mainstream marketplace.
Giffin and others like him have realized that inspiration for a new tool is about 1 percent of a long and arduous process. "The amount of time and documentation is amazing," says Martin, who licensed his AccuMark tool to L.J. Smith, a national stair parts supplier. "There were moments I thought, 'I don't need this aggravation.'"
Gass, in fact, quit his job as a patent attorney to apply his woodworking passion and doctorate in physics full time to SawStop, a finger-sensitive brake system for power saws. "Our original plan was to license the technology [to saw manufacturers], not create a new tool company," he says. After three years pursuing that plan without success, Gass has been meeting with potential investors and manufacturers to help launch a line of SawStop-equipped power tools.
A Long and Winding Road
Regardless of its inspiration, a new tool idea must weave its way through several stages of refinement, drawings and prototypes, patent protection, frustration and hope, and pursuit of partners, investors, lenders, potential customers, engineers, licensees, and manufacturers, among others, on its way to the shelves. "It's an unbelievable process," says Martin.
When a sub approached Harold Rodenberger with an idea for a one-man panel-lifting device, the Seattle-area contractor's first inclination was to contact a patent attorney. With a provisional patent secured at a cost of about $80, Rodenberger and his inventor-partner, Jan Urbanovic, have one year to apply for a full patent while pursuing manufacturers or entrepreneurs to buy their Lever-Lift tool.
Most inventors follow the same path of pursuing patent protection before exposing their idea to others, especially manufacturers, and developing market awareness and demand while refining their inventions.
With patents pending, for instance, both Gass and Giffin exhibited and demonstrated prototypes of their respective tools at national hardware shows to boost exposure and interest, while Martin hired an engineer to build a prototype.
Robert Davies, a framing contractor who invented a set of aluminum racks to hold a flat stack of plywood on a pitched roof, drafted a usage manual and product labeling in addition to finding a source for remnant aluminum stock, leveraging land holdings for investment cash, shooting a promotional video, and launching a Web site. "I've built up a network of sources after six years of doing this," he says.
False Starts with Manufacturers
Attracting the interest of manufacturers is arguably the most wearisome leg of the journey. "It took six months just to get a reply from [one tool manufacturer], and that was with a patent," says Martin, who then spent two years negotiating with L.J. Smith for a licensing agreement.
Gass went back and forth with a major power saw manufacturer for more than a year before the company told him it wasn't interested, and he has demonstrated the SawStop at trade shows and in boardrooms to almost every other tool maker. "As a safety feature, we got a lot of attention early, but it ultimately made it harder to sell," says Gass, largely because of product liability issues and high retooling costs required to incorporate his idea into existing lines of power saws.
Economic viability, in fact, is one of three initial criterions that Barbara Davis, inventions coordinator for Black & Decker and its DeWalt affiliate, looks for first among the substantial number of tool ideas submitted to the company every year. "In addition to novelty and some relation to our core business, an idea has to be economically viable," she says.
Out of a thousand submissions, Davis says, perhaps 100 get a second look, with 10 or so moving on to one of the company's tool development teams and one or two of those entering negotiations for a licensing, buy-out, or royalty agreement with their inventors. "It's a pretty steep fallout, but it does happen," Davis says.
Asking for Help
Despite independence matched only by their persistence, most of these and other tool inventors have not embarked on the journey to commercial availability alone. Gass, for instance, took two other patent attorneys with him to develop SawStop, while Davies is looking for a CFO-type to manage the financial end of his High-Jax venture, and he took on a partner to run his framing business so he could focus on the invention. "If you're in a position where you don't have the time, funds, or ability to communicate, you need to find someone to do it for you," Davies says.
Licking their collective chops for such an opportunity are myriad invention submission consulting firms. Often criticized for their willingness to take on any crackpot idea for a few hundred bucks' fee--with much more out-of-pocket as their services mount--such companies represent thousands of inventors nationwide. "People want to take their idea to market and are looking for options and to learn about the process," says Melinda Miller, an associate with Invention Submission Corp. (ISC) in Pittsburgh.
In its brochure and other printed and online materials, ISC reports that 55 of its 5,681 paying clients between 1999 and 2001 received licensing agreements for their inventions, while 15 (a mere one-third of 1 percent) have received more money than they paid to ISC. "We're realistic about the length of the process and the potential for payback," Miller says.
Eschewing such pursuit of his product and his pocketbook, Martin instead joined a local inventor's association chapter, where he can get free advice from invention veterans and network with vendors, consultants, and others. "It's by far the most valuable resource I found," he says.
With ideas that have the potential to save time, money, and even human flesh on the jobsite, none of these inventors have yet to earn back even close to what they've invested in their respective ideas to date.
Far from discouraged, however, they look for rewards in addition to a financial windfall. "We've spent more than a million dollars, not counting our time, but it'll be worth it if this product is on every power tool in five years," says Gass. "This is important enough technology that should be out there."
Money, of course, still drives most inventors, but those who have gone through the wringer come out a bit more realistic, if still hopeful.
While Rodenberger and Urbanovic wait for a white knight to buy their idea, Giffin hopes to rekindle the Jack Rabbit with an investor or have a marketing score akin to getting tool guru Norm Abram to use it on The New Yankee Workshop. "I've never encountered a buyout option on any of my ideas," Giffin says. "My goal has always been to make money with it."
It's a vision shared by tool manufacturers. "The ultimate question is, how do you convince a potential buyer that your idea is better than all the others and will help them make money?" says Rodenberger. "It's like getting them to buy a lottery ticket."
(Editor's note: For more invention resources, see Inventors' Resources.)
Rich Binsacca is a freelance writer from Boise, Idaho.