By Norman Carlisle (This article was originally published in October 1963)
When George Breen a young electrical-equipment salesman, moved to a Vermont farm with the idea that he’d make maple sugaring pay, he soon tired of the backbreaking labor involved in doing it as it had been done since the Revolution. Extracting sap from the trees and conveying it by bucket to the evaporating tanks was a tedious business. Breen, using his head instead of his back, decided to automate the process.
He rigged up an intricate network of plastic tubes that ran from tree to tree and ended up in the vat. Realizing he had an invention that others could use, Breen applied for a patent. Then he asked himself the question that plagues every inventor: “How can I sell it?”
Breen had heard that inventions were hard to sell, especially to big firms with their own research departments, but he boldly discussed his device with the company that had sold him the tubing – the giant Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Co. It promptly bought the rights to Breen’s invention, and now markets it under the name of Mapleflo. Royalties flow into Breen’s pockets as easily as the sap flows through the 20 miles of plastic tubing in his 65-acre sugar bush.
Was the ease with which Breen sold his invention to a big company – which holds hundreds of patents of its own – just a freak? Not at all. Only the fact that he sold it to the first company he offered it to is exceptional.
How many inventions are actually sold and used? Statistics are hard to come by because the U.S. Patent Office keeps no records of what becomes of an invention after it’s patented. But studies by the Patent, Trademark, and Copyright Research Foundation of George Washington University reveal that a surprisingly high percentage are actually sold or used.
While authoritative estimates just a decade ago ran as low as 20 percent, a study by the Foundation indicates that between 55 and 65 percent of all recently patented inventions are actually used. And the remaining 35 to 45 percent of unused ones include some that obviously had little chance of sale to begin with – like a recently patented bagel slicer (a bagel is a doughnut-shaped hard roll); a balloon-supported, flying landing field for rescuing stricken airliners; and an improved dowsing rod that uses copper tubing instead of the familiar “witching” stick. That unused category also includes “back-up” patents taken out by company researchers who have simply patented embellishments, which may never be used, on existing inventions.
What’s the secret of selling an invention to a big company? The success stories of independent inventors, research directors, patent attorneys, and invention brokers indicate that the trick is to offer the right invention. George Breen picked the ideal concern to approach because 3M had much to gain from marketing his pipeline sap-harvesting system.
Sell to a big or small company? The small one is probably more anxious for new inventions.
Some inventions are, by their very nature, “big-company" products. Jim Robbins, the man who devised the coin-operated do-it-yourself dry-cleaning machine, knew from the start that only a big appliance maker could buy it and put it on the market; a small concern could hardly have coped with the manufacturing and distribution problems.
While he was working on his machine, Robbins and his lawyer studied various appliance makers. They picked two as them first targets. The second Divas Norge, which sent a team of top executives to the lime Michigan token ~ which Robbins had built his sample machine. Norge bought it on royalty teams that promise over $2,000,000 for Robbins.
A few years ago, Leonard Marrafino, a Mount Vernon, N.Y., printer, and John Spero, a draftsman, joined forces to develop a "crazy" invention: a way to put stripes in toothpaste. By much tinkering they devised a tiny plastic gadget that goes in the top of the tube. When the tube is squeezed, coloring matter comes through the slots, making stripes in the toothpaste. The inventors decided that no small company could make a go of distributing the novel toothpaste, and offered it to the pharmaceutical giants. Lever Brothers bought it. The result: Stripe.
While most big companies are receptive to the right offering, only a few inventions are really big-company naturals.
What's the secret of success for the independent inventor? Offering the right invention.
Aim for the littler fellows. "I generally seek out small companies," says K. O. Kessler, an invention broker. "The big companies rarely need an invention—lots of smaller concerns do.”
Kessler cites cases like the bricklaying device developed by Henry Ruzza of Eau Claire, Wis. It enables a do-it-yourselfer to erect brick walls and maintain a level line. "No good for the big companies—but we found a small plant in Michigan that snapped it up because the firm needed something to keep its machines busy."
There are hundreds of similar examples. Dr. Robin Beach, a Brooklyn engineer who invented the Magic Wand, a simple wood-and-wire device for bleeding static electricity from industrial machines, could have sold to a big firm. Instead he decided on a small specialized one that he felt would really push his invention.
A small firm was also the choice of Frank Bellock of Chicago whose invention is a kidproof wall outlet, developed after his son received a bad shock when he thrust scissors into an ordinary outlet. Bellock picked a modest-size local company that needed specialty items.
When Dr. Robert Horton, a Minnesota physician, developed the Slumbertone, a small transistorized gadget that emits a sound soothing to a baby, he found the ideal maker – a small company already making a baby product, and which could easily handle another with its sales and manufacturing setup. The terms for the inventor were much more favourable than he could have obtained from a company in less need of his invention.
Your local Chamber of Commerce will be eager to give you information about any firm that might be interested. Many trade associations will provide you with a list of members, and with information about which ones might be interested in your invention. A visit or letter to a field office of the Small Business Administration will get you advice about firms that might be prospects. You can get the “Directory of National Associations of Businessmen” by sending 50 cents to the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington 25, D.C. “Thomas’ Register,” available in most public libraries, lists all U.S. companies by products.
It’s not impossible to get firms to come to you. Classified advertisements in newspapers have attracted buyers. A man with a pharmaceutical process sold it for $200,000 through an ad in a New York daily. For a fee of $3 the Patent Office will list your invention in the “Official Gazette.” The Small Business Administration puts out a “Products List Circular” in which, without charge, it will describe and picture your invention.
You can offer your invention to a company in person or by mail. If you’ve got a patent on it, the basic document, of course, is the patent application. A lot of inventors wonder about offering a patent-pending invention, or one on which they haven’t even applied for a patent. You can offer either. Many companies will look only at a patented or patent-applied-for inventions; others will consider unpatented ones. One firm that takes inventions at any stage is Trigrett Industries, of Jackson, Tenn. It’s headed by John Trigrett, one of the country’s top invention experts.
The question that Trigrett hears most frequently from inventors is: “How do I know they won’t steal my invention?”
“The idea that companies steal inventions is a myth,” Tigrett told me. “It’s cheaper for them to negotiate a royalty agreement than to risk litigation. I've handled hundreds of inventions, patented and unpatented, and I've never heard of anyone stealing an invention.”
A myth, says an inventions expert. It's cheaper for a company to pay royalties than fight lawsuits.
If you want to eliminate the nuisance of peddling your own invention, you can. Many patent attorneys will help you follow through on sales. There are reputable invention brokers and patent agents, such as K.O. Kessler, who operate on a percentage basis. With their considerable know-how in negotiating agreements, as well as their knowledge of markets, they are well worth patronizing. You should be warned, however, that there are some “brokers” who don't do much for you. Make sure that the man who undertakes to sell your invention really has the experience and facilities he says he has. Check with the Better Business Bureau before signing up.
Another possibility is to set up your own company and keep all the profits for yourself. To do that, of course you have to want to run a business, and have some business qualifications. Take the case of Al Creighton, a young Boston economist who cooked up a concoction of resin and metal powder into “plastic steel.” He figured that his putty-like metal, the formula of which he didn't want to disclose, would be hard to sell to an existing company. He knew just what his product would do; he'd mixed up considerable batches of it in his kitchen. And he thought that he could get salesmen carrying other lines to take on his product and show it during their calls on hardware stores and other outlets.
Creghton rightly figured that he had a perfect setup for his own business – a conclusion since confirmed by the fact that now, 10 years later, he does a comfortable $3,000,000-a-year business.
His story, like those of almost all successful inventor-operated companies, has the ingredients necessary for success:
For an instructive blueprint, an inventor pondering making his-own could hardly do better than to study the way Ove Hanson of Seattle worked it out. Hanson invented the Squangle, a combined variable-angle square, level, protractor, and handsaw guide. He had a real handy item for home craftsmen, and knew he could find a company to buy it. He reasoned, however, that his device might be lost in the line of a big company. Sell it to a small one? Yes – but Hanson figured he had his problems so well under control that he might as well start his own business.
First, he knew that his invention was saleable: He had made up a number of Squangles by hand, and they had been snapped up by craftsmen.
Production? No problem there. He didn’t need a factory. After he had his dies made, Hanson found a number of local machine shops that had presses standing idle at odd hours. He arranged to use them at lower than-usual rates. Assembling and packaging he did in his garage.
As for selling, Hanson didn’t need a sales force. He had no difficulty finding manufacturers’ representatives who were glad to take on an extra line.
The all-important matter of capital was handled locally. Hanson put in some of his own money and persuaded friends to put in the additional money needed for getting started. Later, with a going enterprise, he had no trouble raising $10,000 more for new dies and larger inventories. The success of the Squangle was now well known enough in his community to make it easy to sell stock to 25 local people.
Squangle may not have made Ove Hanson rich, but it has brought him a return far beyond anything he could have expected by selling it any other way.
Does your invention meet the basic specifications for success? Is it useful, workable, producible, and marketable? If it is, no matter how you decide to sell it, you can figure that the odds are in your favour.