Got a great Idea? Run With It!
You might not get rich quick, but if you stick with it, there are other rewards
BY TONY MARTIN
Making Room for Baby
One day in 1987, Malcolm Jefferson, a 37-year-old Ottawa carpenter, put his one-year-old son, Devon, into the child’s bike seat secured over his rear wheel and pedalled off for a ride. They didn’t get far. Devon was soon screaming his head off, calming down only when Jefferson took him out of the bike seat. The two ended up walking home.
Jefferson didn’t blame Devon; he blamed the bike seat. Not only could Devon not see where he was going, he couldn’t communicate with his father.
That night Jefferson went into his workshop, made a small wooden platform with handlebars, and bolted it onto the bike’s crossbar behind the handlebars. The next day, father and son headed out again. This time Devon was all smiles. He could see ahead, connect with his dad and even put his head down on a special platform for a nap.
Everywhere they rode, bike riders bombarded Jefferson with questions. “One day I was even pulled over by an RCMP officer who wanted to know all about the seat,” he says.
Jefferson raised $30,000 from friends and family and, over the next nine months, handcrafted 100 seats. He soon signed a deal with a manufacturer eager to license his design, but that quickly turned into a legal battle. The company balked on paying Jefferson the agreed sum, threatened to slash his royalty rate and tried to sue him for $80,000. “They knew I didn’t have the money to fight them,” he recalls.
A lawyer advised Jefferson not to let himself be scared off, and the company backed down. But it wasn’t a complete victory. While Jefferson got everything back, he received no money.
He decided to make and market the seat himself. It took another five years just to engineer a seat that could be manufactured. Along the way he had to raise some $3 million—the molds alone cost about $500,000. Jefferson gave a big chunk of the company to his backers, leaving himself as the third-largest shareholder.
His stick-to-it determination served him well. The bike seat made by his company, Centric-Safe Haven, was put in the 2001 Sears catalogue, and in 2002 was stocked by some Home Hardware and Toys “R” Us stores. In 2003, Zellers came on board, and Jefferson began selling over the Internet, targeting markets in the United States and Europe.
It has always been an uphill climb, and Jefferson never earned more than a meagre salary for his efforts. What kept him going is his faith in himself and his invention, and the support from backers, friends, family and satisfied customers. “If it wasn’t for their positive feedback,” he says, “I would have given up long ago.”
In the inventing world, getting there is what it’s all about. Good ideas are a dime a dozen: What is rare are people with the drive to bring them to life and build a business around them.
Inventing is no quick way to riches, because the world won’t beat a path to your door. Typically, inventors spend far more time, money and energy than planned. But they thrive on solving the endless problems that arise and are sustained by the thrill of seeing their ideas turned into products that find approval with the public.
Here are four more success stories.
Helping the Home Renovator
As long as he can remember, Andrew Dewberry has been dreaming up new and better ways to do things. He recalls lying in bed one night and, unable to fall asleep, contemplating the car industry and how it would be more efficient if the steelmaker was located next door to the car plant.
Not your normal way of counting sheep—especially since Dewberry was just 11 at the time. “I’ve always been a lateral thinker,” says the 43-year-old native of England. “I just can’t stay still mentally.”
In 1991 Dewberry, an architect, immigrated to Vancouver with his wife, Jayne, a criminologist. While renovating the bathroom in their new home—the third he’d done in his life—Dewberry decided there had to be a better way to apply the caulking that seals and waterproofs the edges around a tub. He’d also noticed workers on job sites he’d visited smoothing silicone caulking with their fingertips—even though the caulking comes with a warning against contact with skin.
Dewberry started tinkering and soon came up with the Caulk-Rite—a short, plastic handle with an arrow-head-shaped end which holds a triangular piece of soft, rubberlike material that does the smoothing. In 1996 the couple spent $8,000 to have 3,000 units made and invited friends over for a pizza-and-beer bash and an evening of assembling and packaging the Caulk-Rite tools.
At first they thought they would simply license the design, but there were no takers. And when they called hardware store buyers, “they wanted to know who we were, how many we had sold, what other products we had to sell, and what our track record was,” recalls Jayne. “We were terribly naïve.”
Undeterred, they pushed ahead, and over the next two years, while Andrew kept his day job to pay the mortgage, Jayne made the rounds of Home Hardware stores, happy to sell a half dozen at each stop. “Every time I got a sale, I phoned up the head buyer for the company and said, ‘Guess what? I’ve sold another six!’”
The strategy worked. At the Canadian Hardware and Building Materials Show in 1997, Home Hardware agreed to list their product.
Meanwhile, the couple had also landed accounts with Sears, Wal-Mart and Canadian Tire.
They also became a hit on an American home-shopping television channel, packaging a Caulk-Rite tool with a tube of silicone, gloves, instructions and their new tool—a caulking remover called Caulk-Away—for $20 U.S. The orders flooded in—at one point, 7,000 kits were sold in seven minutes.
Today the couple are busy growing their business—which supports them both full-time—and enjoying the challenges that continue to crop up. “We make mistakes,” says Dewberry, “but we’re somewhat pigheaded, and eventually we get there.”
A Rink in Every Yard
Scott Byberg’s regular job is running two construction companies in Toronto. But the energetic 43-year-old father of two is more than happy to be known as the inventor of The RinkRake.
When Byberg was a teenager, his family spent winter weekends at their lakeside cottage. Although they had the postcard-perfect ice rink to skate on, it took a lot of effort to make and maintain it.
Then Byberg had an idea. He attached a big copper pipe drilled full of holes at a right angle to a hose, and dragged it back and forth.
His invention remained a one-off cottage contraption until one night in 1996. Watching Hockey Night in Canada, Byberg went outside between periods to flood his backyard rink. Back inside, he began thinking how families in North America have so little time to build rinks anymore. “I thought if it was easier to make rinks and the ice was better, kids would have more ice time and learn new skills faster.”
So he began producing The RinkRake. He made 700 RinkRakes out of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) in his basement, drilling the holes in the T-shaped tubes and assembling them by hand.
Over the past seven years he has sold more than 11,000 of the rakes in Canada and the northern United States at $49.95 apiece. It has been a long, costly journey. Still it’s the feel-good—not the financial—returns that drive Byberg. “I believe it’s a right of every Canadian to build a rink. I just give people a way to do it better and faster.”
A Better Way of Walking
Born and raised on the same Ontario farm he now runs with his parents, Lance Matthews was fixing the barn roof one November day in 1997 when he slipped, fell two storeys and fractured his heel on the frozen ground. After hobbling around on crutches for a few days, he decided there had to be a better walking aid.
In his basement workshop Matthews designed a hands-free crutch. The device featured a small shelf—on which to rest a flexed knee—sup-ported on a stick attached to his upper leg with Velcro straps. With his weight supported on his knee, he had both hands free, could carry out daily tasks, and was spared the aches, pains, and falls that often accompany crutches.
He wore his invention at his next checkup at the Sunnybrook and Women’s College Health Sciences Centre’s trauma unit in Toronto. “You’ve got to develop this!” enthusiastic doctors and technologists told him.
With their help, Matthews refined the crutch, now made out of aluminum and plastic, raised nearly $1 million from family, friends and venture capitalists, and today is busy marketing the iWALKFree.
“I did everything—made cold calls, drove everywhere, made tons of presentations,” he says. “I don’t have a business degree, so I had to wing the whole thing.”
His big bet is paying off. At $599 U.S. ($349 in Canada), he’s already sold almost 2,000 to happy customers around the world, and hopes to set up a charitable foundation to provide the iWALKFree to amputees in war-torn countries.
He admits that if he’d known just how much work it would take, he might never have begun. “But once I start something, I stick with it. And you have to stick with it if you want to succeed.”
Helping Handles for the Elderly
In the late 1990s, Alexandra Levy got a contract with the Quebec branch of a U.S. company that sells everything from carts to trays for institutional meal delivery. Her mother, Sarah, worked at the same company.
The two soon discovered that many people—particularly seniors in nursing homes—had trouble using standard plates, cups and utensils. Arthritic patients often found cutlery handles too small to grasp, while those suffering the trembling of Parkinson’s disease risked burning themselves when drinking hot beverages. The ill-suited supplies made eating so difficult that some patients became undernourished.
When Alexandra and Sarah approached their employer with the idea of making ergonomically friendly insulated dishes, cutlery and other meal-related items, the company wasn’t interested, so they decided to develop a line of products themselves. If they could be made at a reasonable price, and be made aesthetically pleasing, the line could turn into a money saver. “Nursing home and hospital operators are always looking for cost-saving measures,” reasoned Alexandra. “If patients can feed themselves, that frees up an attendant.”
It was a great idea, but costly. It took 18 months to come up with the right designs, and then they had to raise $250,000 for molding and tooling, tapping two banks and two government funding programs.
But their faith in their new endeavour, Ergogrip, is paying off. By 2002, their annual sales had tripled to almost $1 million—in Quebec alone.
They are now busy expanding across Canada and into the United States, and adding to their line of products—which today stands at 17 items.
“Everybody is being paid, but we’re not living lives of luxury,” says Alexandra. Despite their debt, she and Sarah are happy. “We’re building the company and doing what we want to do—and the way we want to do it.”
Andrew dewberry, the Caulk-Rite inventor, would agree. “The whole process, from coming up with the idea to actually seeing it used, gives you a fantastic sense of self-worth.”
How to Protect Your Great Idea
Step by step, here’s how to patent your brainchild
Although you can’t keep an idea in a strongbox, you can lock it up safely with a patent. A patent gives you the right to exclude others from making, using or selling your invention for up to 20 years from the day after you file for it. “A patent proclaims, ‘This is my idea, and you can only use it with my permission,’” says John Orange, a patent agent with the Toronto office of the law firm McCarthy Tétrault.
Getting a patent takes time and money - from a few thousand dollars to over $30,000 in extremely complicated cases. But you should weigh that against the potential profits your idea may bring in, advises Orange. Years ago he assisted three professors in patenting their encryption software. The company that grew out of their efforts – Certicom - recently licensed its software to the U.S. National Security Agency for $25 million.
Here are the steps to follow:
Step 1. Determine if your idea has patent potential
To be eligible for a patent, your idea has to meet three basic tests. First, it has to be new. You can’t get a patent for something that’s been described in print, is in public use or on sale. That’s important because it also applies to you. If you describe your invention in print, display it in public or put it on sale, you have to apply for a patent within a year. If you don’t, you lose the right to patent it.
Second, your invention must be useful. You can’t get a patent for something that doesn’t serve any function.
Third, your invention has to be a “Why-didn’t-I-think-of that?” idea. Something that’s just a bit faster, lighter or a different shade of green won’t work.
Step 2. Do a preliminary search
If your idea is patentable, the next step is to see if anybody else has already patented it. The going can get a bit tough here: There are more than 1.5 million patents on hand in Canada. You can visit the Canadian Patent Office in Hull, Que., in person or go to the Canadian Intellectual Property Office’s site at www.cipo.gc.ca.
Don’t be surprised if you find many patents dealing with just the invention you had thought was unique. This can actually help you assess the market appeal of your idea and further refine it. Say you’ve come up with a super pooper-scooper. You may find that some simply aren’t viable, others are too costly to manufacture, and that yours is better than the others. “When you analyze why your idea is different and why it solves problems similar inventions have, you get to the essence of what your invention is," says Orange. If you do discover that someone has already patented your exact idea, you’ve saved yourself considerable time and expense.
Step 3. Prepare your application
There are typically three components to a patent application. First you must briefly describe your invention in summary form. This is known as an abstract. This information is further fleshed out in a specification, which includes a detailed description of your invention and its use.
The third element is your claims. This area can be tricky since you’re trying to accomplish two potentially conflicting goals. Using the information gleaned from your patent searches, you have to offer enough specifics so that your invention is distinguished from all other similar ones. At the same time, the broader you can make your definition, the more protection you have against others coming along and doing what you’re doing by using different terms. Orange offers a simple example: “Say you patented a tin can and specified in the claims that it was circular. If somebody else sold a square tin can, they would avoid your patent. What you would want to do is claim a container with a peripheral wall extending between end walls without defining the shape.”
Step 4. File
This is the formal step of submitting your application – and the fee, from $200 to $400 - and asking for a patent. Your application will be given a number and application date. At this stage, you have the right to use the words “Patent Applied for” on your document. The key date is not when your application is approved but when it is filed – even if you later revise it.
Step 5. Request an examination
Just filing an application doesn’t mean it will be looked at. You’ll need to request an examination and pay a fee, ranging from $100 to $800.
Why would you want to apply and not request an examination? If you haven’t fully worked out a business plan or are still evaluating your invention’s chances in the marketplace, you might hold off on the examination process. You have up to five years after your application is received to make your request.
Once you do request an examination, you’ll need patience. It may take two to three years to complete the process due to the heavy volume. Last year, for example, the Canadian Intellectual Property Office received some 30,000 requests for examination.
Step 6. The examination process
Your application will be compared to other similar patents. If there are objections, you can amend your application. This process may be repeated several times until your application is either accepted or turned down.
Step 7. Consider filing for foreign patents
Winning a Canadian patent only protects you here at home, but thanks to the Patent Co-operation Treaty, with one application you can apply for patents in as many of the 115 member countries as you like.
Do it Yourself or Use an Agent?
If you’re not comfortable handling applications by yourself, you can hire a specialist called a Registered Patent Agent to process any or all of these steps for you. Patent agents charge $200 to $500 an hour. The CIPO maintains a list of Registered Patent Agents, and you can also find a limited list of those accepting new clients on-line at the CIPO site. After performing a search, the agent will prepare a draft, discuss it with the inventor, make any necessary changes and, when finalized, file it with the Patent Office.
Do you have a great idea—one you want to protect? contact the Canadian Intellectual Property Office at 819-997-1936.
-Courtesy of Readers Digest