‘You should patent that’
Chico has long list of creative, market-minded inventors
Coasting through Upper Bidwell Park with a boyish grin on his face, 50-something Mike Borzage might as well be 13 again. College kids driving by honk and offer up a “Man, that’s cool” as a slight breeze sends Borzage and his sail-equipped bike—all 12 feet of it—past Horseshoe Lake.
Borzage was in his early teens when his dad brought home a couple of huge garbage-like bags. Adding a couple of broomsticks, the Chico boy rigged up a system to catch the wind while atop his bicycle. The experience planted a seed for what four decades later would become a Kevlar-reinforced Mylar sail with a fiberglass mast.
“It was like a one-night stand, so to speak,” Borzage said of his early prototype. College beckoned, and then a career, and Borzage had no time to strap bags to bikes. But he did cultivate an interest in racing boats (he’d learned to sail at 12 on Horseshoe Lake). More than 30 years later, after moving back to Chico to teach construction management at Chico State University, Borzage realized, “I still wanted to sail on my bike.”
“How many times, when you’re a kid, do you think of something?” asked Borzage, who has been a guest speaker at Emma Wilson Elementary School when the students were studying inventors. “They say everyone has three ideas in their lifetime that would make them a million dollars if they did anything with it.”
Borzage resurrected that creative mind and in 1999 secured a patent for his sailbike.
He’s among 279 Chico residents, identified by searching the United States Patent and Trademark Office database at www.uspto.gov, who have gotten their inventions patented in the years since 1976. (The office itself dates to 1802.)
It’s not easy to get a patent, acknowledged Ruth Nyblod, a public affairs specialist for the patent office in Arlington, Va., which also oversees the issuing of copyrights and trademarks. But, “if anyone is due a patent they will get it.”
Securing a patent—which includes thousands of dollars in fees—gives an inventor the right to keep anyone else in the country from making or selling his or her invention. About 70 to 75 percent of patent applications eventually result in a patent’s being issued.
Kermit Berge considers himself lucky. His invention has to be one of the mostly widely adopted devices conceived from Chico. The modest, unassuming family man built the first wheelchair-adaptable shopping cart.
Berge was working as a food clerk at Safeway when he noticed one frequent customer who used a wheelchair had a hard time navigating the store with his purchases. “I thought, ‘This isn’t right,'” Berge remembered. It was not quite 1980, and, “at the time, it seemed like there wasn’t enough attention being paid to the disabled.”
He scrounged three busted-up carts from a Safeway district manager and tinkered around in his garage until he figured out a way to hook the basket part of a cart to a wheelchair. A buddy did the welding work for “a case of beer and 100 bucks.”
Berge was testing the contraption in his driveway, with his kids along for the ride, when he was spotted by a neighbor who worked for a local television station. The next thing he knew, he was all over the news and summoned to a meeting at Safeway’s Bay Area headquarters, where the company president told him, “We’re damn proud of you. We’re going to patent this thing and put it in your name.” The company paid for the lawyers and did all the legwork, asking only that it have the right to produce the cart exclusively for the first year.
Berge still works for Safeway, which flew him and his wife to Washington, D.C., and major cities for press conferences as the first carts were unveiled. He didn’t want to say exactly how much his invention has earned him—he got 5 percent royalties—but it was enough to send his two youngest children to private school and buy a house.
Berge is proud of his patent—he keeps the document, with its shiny seal, framed in his home—but when it expired three years ago he didn’t seek to renew it. His cart is still being used in many chain stores, but he expects most will transition to newer, electric models and his invention will have served its purpose.
Still, it was a good run. “When I was out of town and I’d see people using them in a store I’d think, ‘Wow, I did that,'” Berge said, shaking his head in disbelief. “I was just trying to help this one guy. This is so simple, it’s scary.”
To fit the legal criteria for a patent, an object must have a use ("no matter how trivial,” the law reads), be different from all previous inventions and be so “significant” and “nonobvious” that an expert in the field would be surprised to see it.
For Amy Harris, a mother of two, the idea came at about 5 one morning after her daughter had a particularly nasty diaper “blowout” and the mess carried to the difficult-to-remove crib mattress and tie-on bumpers. “I was thinking, ‘There has to be a better way.'”
She devised a four-piece bumper set that incorporates Velcro tabs and a zipper closure so the only thing that has to be changed is the removable mattress pad. She took the setup to a sample maker, and by the beginning of this year she had the patent and was selling the sets online at www.diggledo.com. She’s now developing an organic-cotton version for the natural-products market.
“It’s been more of a hobby,” said Harris, who sells advertising for the Chico Enterprise-Record. “But I know it has a lot of marketing potential.”
It’s all about marketing for Justin Gnass. Since 1984, he has made his living selling equipment to firefighters. Most of it he’s designed and built himself, but only one invention made him want to take the time and money to get a patent: the Porta Winder, which winds hoses into a square with a vacant center so the hose can then be folded into a horseshoe shape. It’s used by firefighters across the nation, including Butte County CDF.
“I saw the need for a machine that could wind the hose and be taken out into the field,” Gnass said, and he decided to patent it because he spent 2,000 hours developing it, and, “I decided because this was the first mechanical invention that I felt strongly about.” For other inventions, such as his harness used to carry a folded or rolled hose on one’s back, he relies on the law that states if something is already being sold and in use, no one else can come along and patent it.
Some inventions are more about entertainment than changing the world.
Doug Wurlitzer’s creation is “not something that’s essential for life. It’s just fun,”
He farms rice for a living, but during the off season he has a bit of time on his hands. During the winter of 1995-96, he said, “I started tinkering around trying to make a flapping wing for a duck decoy.” Then, he decided to make it decorative. His first “wind-powered apparatus with figure” was a crude-but-cute bee with a fan-like thing attached.
Wurlitzer—the organ inventor is a distant relative—has added copper figures to his animated weather vanes with flapping wings and sells them at garden and gift shows and online at www.wurlywindcreations.com.
Ragland “Rags” Tuttle is sure his invention will take off once more people hear about it—or just plain hear it. It’s a musical keyboard with a spiral design. The notes are wrapped around the cylindrical Ragzpol. The trick, he said, “is the alignment of the keys.”
It’s based on MIDI sound, and all the user has to do to play in a different key is rotate the Ragzpol. Running a thumb up and down the pole plays a scale.
“I saw the image in my head,” Tuttle said. I built a couple of flat keyboards, and then I started wrapping them around poles.”
“I’m a musician. I never invented anything before,” he said. “I just had people help me.” He’s sold a few online at www.ragzpol.com and is scouting trade shows and publications to get the word out. “I really like performing and being on stage with it.”
Nyblod, of the patent office, said when someone wants to get a patent, “There’s some homework an inventor needs to do.” The patent office Web site is searchable, or an inventor can visit one of many depositories across the country.
“The fees are cut in half for small entities” like a single inventor or a small business, said Nyblod, with the minimum being about $4,000.
When Borzage set out to construct his sailbike, he researched other inventors’ attempts at the same concept. Most had the sail in the back, where it was hard to maneuver. Borzage’s sailboard-inspired model was unique enough to warrant a patent. The rider “tacks” back and forth and flips the sail from left to right as needed—no pedaling. He’s clocked over 20 miles per hour. “It’s like a little kid coasting down a hill and you just keep going and going and you never stop.”
To qualify for a patent, the invention has to actually work.
“It took a lot of experimentation,” Wurlitzer said of his weathervane, and a lot of driving around with various samples in the back of his truck. “In the beginning, at 35 miles per hour things would start flying apart. … The refining is what took a lot of time.”
He got the patent in March 2000, spending between $6,000 and $8,000, which included hiring an engineer to write the description. “It cost me less than many,” he said, probably because few similar devices had been invented, with the closest one dating to 1914.
With three patents under his belt and two more pending, John Strisower is skilled in the game.
“I took things apart as a kid and was always into those whiz-bang gizmos,” said Strisower, but, “I would not consider myself a terribly creative person.
“Relatively few ideas are new ideas,” he said. “Now, it’s all about efficiency: how to take advantage of technology early and apply it to the business model.” (The tale oft told in inventor circles—that Ben Franklin said the patent office should be shut down because everything had already been invented—is an urban myth, said Nyblod, of the patent office.)
Besides a cashier machine for casinos (it lets players cash in chips by themselves, like an ATM), Strisower has invented and sold a system to track transactions in a gaming pit. His Chico business, Travidia, which employs 120 people, is based on another of his inventions, which converts advertising circulars to text that can be searched on the Web.
If it’s true that inventor types favor the creative, left side of the brain, they nonetheless have to tap into the right brain when it comes time to market and sell their inventions.
One of the biggest missteps Nyblod sees at the patent office is an inventor’s not thinking it through to the selling phase. “A patent should always be part of an overall business plan—the whole process from mind to market.”
Wurlitzer knows the cost of his weathervane—$800 to $900 wholesale; double that for retail—is an issue. “I’m really torn on keeping it American-made at a higher price or having it made overseas so more people can afford it,” he said, but, “I want something that’s quality or I’m not going to do it.”
Borzage has thought about taking his sailbike down to San Diego and just tooling around on the beach. “When things catch on in a Southern California beach area, they catch on everywhere. If this has any appeal, it would have to be something young kids see and say that’s cool.”
Borzage wonders if he’d better pick up the pace. “It almost begins to sour the whole thing when you start to think of ways of getting it to market or having the patent infringed on.”
That’s something Marcia Briggs had to deal with head-on.
Commissioned in 1985 by a globe-trotting Stanford professor, she created a garment bag that folds into thirds without wrinkling hanging clothes. It also converts to a backpack. Not long after she designed the bag, another company starting making the product.
“It’s so expensive to defend [a patent],” she said. Plus, she knew people who worked at the conflicting manufacturer—which eventually settled by stopping production—and it was awkward to be taking them to task.
She speculated the politics and bureaucracy of the patent process may be part of the reason Briggs is one of only about 10 female patent-holders among the nearly 300 Chico patents. “For me, the reason I don’t patent a lot of my stuff is it gets real ugly. Trying to protect it is not fun. Maybe women have a hard time with that.”
Briggs started and later sold Caribou Mountaineering and now designs educational toys and other products that generally aren’t able to be patented. She also teaches marketing at Chico State.
Rags Tuttle and Amy Harris were each granted a design patent—recognizable because the patent number has a “D” in front of it—which applies to an original design for a manufactured item. Most patents are “utility” patents, which generally covers processes, machines and manufactured items. The final category is the rarest: a plant patent, for those who discover and reproduce a new variety of plant.
Strisower became frustrated during the “expensive, long process” (at least two years) of turning his inventions into his intellectual property—which it is then his responsibility and at his expense to defend.
“I think lots of people have good ideas, but there are some barriers to invention,” he said. Each of his three issued patents had “office action,” where patent office staffers had concerns, and there were a few red flags about “prior art.” “It’s up to you as an inventor to explain why yours is new and different.”
Matt York, owner and founder of Videomaker magazine, had a long fight protecting his invention. In 1996, he’d invented the Couch Link—a way to connect remotely to a PC that would then send Internet and other computer images to a television screen. “It might not be as fun to sit in your [desk] chair looking at streaming video,” he said. “I want to kick back on the couch with the screen 10 feet from my nose.”
He used some educated guesswork to find a lawyer who had previously been an examiner for the patent office, which ended up being a very smart move. “I got turned down and we appealed four times,” York said. “Eventually, they caved. But it was expensive. Their job is to turn people away. They have no interest in issuing new patents.”
Strisower now advises fellow inventors to act early, as he has on a concept that would link digital cameras to cellular phones. “Don’t be afraid of taking the next step and documenting the idea, even if they never patent it,” he advised.
Briggs, who suggests getting the cheaper provisional patent to test the market for a year, always makes a point to take a picture of her designs. “I’ll take it to a notary and have them sign it off and date it.”
With the trifold garment bag, she found, “There’s a niche market for something like this, but I had a terrible time trying to market it. Every couple of years I’ll try to sell it again.” The experience made her reluctant to seek patents in the future, but that has led to one regret, involving a folding, zipped travel bag for toiletries she invented at the request of L. L. Bean. She sees her invention pop up at trade shows all the time. “Some of them are stitch-for-stitch. I couldn’t even tell it wasn’t mine. … If I had patented that one thing I’d probably be rich now.”
For Solutions3 owner Dave Brobst, getting a patent was pretty anticlimactic. A client had hired him to execute a concept: Take the idea of NASCAR and translate it to a slot car track, complete with pit stops, crashes and simulated tire wear. “It’s like the old-school slot car but it does all this stuff.” Brobst did it, and the patent came through, but the client decided not to pursue it. “It was disappointing,” he said. “Anything we do as a company, if it doesn’t eventually make it to the market, that sucks. There’s less of a sense of accomplishment.”
It was Brobst’s fourth patent, and on all of them he’s been the co-inventor, functioning as a contracted engineer and then signing his rights away. “We’re kind of like the architect,” he said. “They come to us and say, ‘This is our idea.'” When he came up with a way to monitor industrial batteries to tell when they were almost out of juice and needed changing, he said, “it didn’t seem like I invented anything. I just put all of the building blocks together.”
Usually, he said, “there’s probably a million different ways you could do it. Then, it is more of a creative process. That’s the fun thing about any kind of design.”
In the electronics field, Brobst said, “patents are like a business strategy.” Some will “shotgun” out a bunch of ideas and set themselves up to sell out to other inventors who pop up later.
That wasn’t York’s intent when he came up with Couch Link. “Initially, I was going to build a product,” said York, who set up a corporation and board of directors for it. “I really threw myself behind Couch Link.
“Couch Link was ahead of its time,” he said. But by the time he secured the patent, York could already tell that another new technology—the “thin client”—would make his invention nearly obsolete. “I knew I was racing the clock. I knew that thin clients were coming and I’d better get out while the getting was good.” He researched electronics firms to see who had a similar product in the works and convinced one, “You need to license my patent to sell your product safely.”
“I pretty much broke even on the whole experience,” he said.
Now, York is hooked on how to improve the monopolized, underutilized low-speed-vehicle industry. “I see so much room for improvement,” he said. “Over the past year and a half, I’ve been building one in my garage.” He calls the “open standard” that mixes elements of bikes and cars the “Mogolaro.”
What he’s wondering is, “Do I patent this thing or do I do what Ben Franklin did? He believed society should be the beneficiary of his good ideas.” York has no end of ideas for products. “There are more solutions to problems than there are hours in the day for me.”
Nyblod, of the patent office, stressed that an inventor isn’t just someone with a bright idea. “It can’t be an abstract idea. You have to reduce that to practice,” Nyblod said.
“I’ve had a lot of ideas and some of them are just hare-brained schemes,” reflected Strisower, 42, who finds it amazing to look back at the discoveries and inventions during the lifespan of his grandmother, who was born in 1886 and lived to be 103. “When I was in school it was kind of a geek thing to have a calculator,” he said. “And no one knows what a slide rule is anymore. Last night, my 3-year-old was drawing with my Tablet PC.” He believes the day will come for wireless power transmission and maybe even a transporter, moving things from place to place.
“I’m not really that much of a sci-fi buff,” he said, but he used to watch Star Trek. Scenes from the series seem almost eerily familiar. “Everyone carries a communicator today.”