By Jody Paterson
Good ideas are a dime a dozen, but the real test of an inventor’s mettle is the tough years that follow.
The little cabin cruiser putts quietly around the Inner Harbour. Proud owner Ian Soutar switches the electric engine to an even slower speed to demonstrate just how very quiet things can get on his boat. He maintains such engines would be perfect for powering tourist excursions along the Gorge Waterway.
“Last year, I commuted across the harbour all summer long by boat, and it cost me a whole $5 in fuel,” says Soutar of his 18-foot solar-powered cruiser, the Pepperpot. “What’s stopping us from having these on the Gorge? This boat is quiet enough to get close to wildlife and for people on board to actually hear what the tour guide is saying.”
Soutar is an inventor, one of a rather special breed who seemingly can’t help but come up with solutions when presented with problems. Victoria is full of brilliant minds dreaming up better ways of doing things. Board games, mobility devices, pet control, a better eBay experience — local inventors have created all of those products and more.
Every inventor has a different tale about how they came up with their idea and what it was like to get it to market. Some breezed through the complex invention process on the wings of a dozen kind mentors, others scratched and scraped bitterly over one hurdle after another. But they all share at least one thing in common: the conviction that good ideas are a dime a dozen, and that the real test of an inventor’s mettle is the tough years that follow the epiphany.
“One per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration. That’s so true. It also takes a lot of faith,” says Eric Jordan, co-founder of Pure Edge Solutions, which invented a software solution to the problem of secure exchange of on-line information.
Soutar invented his solar-powered cabin cruiser because he likes tackling projects that benefit the environment. He’s looking for local boat-builders to partner with on building other solar vessels but, in the meantime, counts the Pepperpot as a hobby. But Soutar also makes his living as an inventor. His company, Microsec R&D, finds electronic solutions to other people’s problems, with products ranging from a virtual fly-fishing program for novices to a hydrogen-assisted bicycle for the Canadian National Exhibition.
He’s in good company. At Outset Media, owner Dave Manga and his team have developed 58 new board games, puzzles, and learning-card games and counting since Manga first had the idea for a Canadian trivia game a decade ago. Erik Djukastein, inventor of the Scarecrow motion-sensor sprinkler for startling animals away from the garden, is off on a new adventure with a steam-powered weed killer, Green Steam. Ian
Stewart’s Handybar has gone worldwide with hundreds of thousands sold.
The region’s bustling tech sector has been a factor in the flourishing of invention and innovation. When brothers Anthony and Andrew Sukow grew frustrated trying to sell software through eBay without sufficient information on their competitors or the market, they invented a system for organizing eBay’s market data that is now in global use. Their company, Advanced E-Commerce Research Systems, monitors 10 million consumer transactions a day on behalf of eBay.
The problems of crab fishermen on B.C.’s north coast became the solution for the entire commercial fishing industry when local firm Archipelago Marine Research Ltd. invented a video system that lets fisheries observers monitor activity at sea from a distance.
Since it started in 1992, the University of Victoria’s Innovation and Development Corporation has nurtured 40 young companies to life. Two intriguing new companies are emerging right now, says IDC president Brent Sternig — one that produces specialized “eyescan” glasses that record where people are looking (of great interest to companies wanting to know if their advertising and product placement is working), and another developing a computer-security system based on recognition of a user’s keyboard style.
Will they succeed? That’s the big question. Inventors need luck, patience, money, business smarts, perseverance, and self-belief in spades to make it through the lengthy process known as “commercialization,” the years and years needed to turn a good idea into a marketable venture.
“Fundamentally, the process is onerous, particularly on small inventors,” says Victoria patent lawyer Michael Cooper. “There’s this whole myth of how you’re going to build a better mousetrap and it will all flow from there. Well, the truth is you’ll build a better mousetrap, spend a million dollars marketing it, and maybe — maybe — you’ll make some money.”
Plato certainly got things right when he came up with that line about necessity being the mother of invention. Things get invented because people encounter problems. An early Victoria example is the Peetz fishing reel. Local jeweller Boris Peetz was making lures for salmon fishermen in the early 1900s and noticed how his customers’ hands were ripped and torn from winding their fishing lines by hand. He came up with a hand-cranked brass-and-mahogany reel that remains the flagship product for modern-day Peetz Manufacturing. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” says company owner Bill Hooson of the unique reels.
Ian Stewart conceived of the Handybar a decade ago, after old soccer injuries to his knees started making it difficult to get in and out of his car. Knowing from his work in the car business that the little metal U that holds car doors shut is extremely sturdy, he came up with a metal gadget that hooks into the U and provides a brace for people to lean on.
Djukastein’s idea for the Scarecrow started with a conversation with a customer about an invention of his father’s, the ScatMat. Since sold to a U.S. company and renamed Paws Away, it’s an electrified mat that uses a mild shock to keeps pets off couches, beds, and other places they aren’t wanted. The customer wondered where she might find a jumbo-size ScatMat that she could use outdoors.
Dave Manga was playing a game of Trivial Pursuit when his first game idea took root. Asked to name the first U.S. president to formally recognize Israel, Manga got the answer right (Truman), but realized he didn’t have a clue which Canadian prime minister had followed suit (Mackenzie King). The board game Canadian Trivia was born.
“That was about looking for a product that already existed, then thinking about how I could do a better job,” says Manga.
The Sukow brothers were frustrated young eBay customers when they came up with the idea of market reports for eBay sellers.
“We were students at UVic, selling software on-line through eBay,” says Anthony Sukow. “We were always wondering whether we were pricing it right, how big the market was, was it growing or declining, who were the competitors. But with eBay at that time, it was a lot of trial and error to find any of that out. We thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could gather that data and let people use it?”
That was five years ago. Advanced E-Commerce Research Systems (AERS) now has a global contract with eBay to licence market research on behalf of the on-line auction company in more than 200 countries.
Archipelago Marine’s Shawn Stebbins says the genesis of the fisheries-monitoring technology grew out of problems of theft and overfishing. “We came up with an electronic solution that tracked the ownership of the traps and featured video of the traps as well. Using that, the fishermen were able to catch some of the guys who were playing around. Then we started thinking about how something similar could be adapted for broad use on other fisheries.”
At UVic’s CanAssist laboratory, Dr. Nigel Livingston used his own experience as the father of a child with special needs as a jumping-off point for a program that has produced
hundreds of one-off, life-changing devices for people with disabilities — a ball-launcher for a boy who wanted to play with his dog, a bicycle for a blind person, a mechanism for helping a two-year-old amputee learn how to use her artificial arm, an umbrella holder that attaches to a walker.
“And all of it is free to the client,” says Livingston, whose department receives 30 requests a month from families throughout B.C. “It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience, especially for the students who take part in the projects.”
Sounds easy, then. Identify a problem. Come up with a fabulous solution. Wait for the world to beat a path to your door. If only.
“Many of my best inventions are still in my head or in process in the garage,” says Stewart. “Having a good idea is easy. Taking it to market is very, very hard.”
The technology sector has an edge on that front. Groups like IDC and the Vancouver Island Advanced Technology Council (VIATeC) have mandates to nurture innovation. VIATeC brings together groups of “yodas” — seasoned business people from the sector — to mentor up-and-comers. IDC hosted the region’s first “angel investor” forum this spring and is planning another on November 4. Independent inventors, on the other hand, generally are on their own.
“It’s not what you know — it’s who you know who can help you,” says one such inventor, John Mayzel. “You can have the best idea in the world, but how are you going to develop a working model? How are you going to get it to the market? And to actually market it, well, that’s a different skill entirely. The inventor simply can’t wear enough hats to do everything that has to be done.”
The patent process alone is expensive and complex, with a bare-minimum starting price of $10,000. Mayzel estimates he spent $100,000 of his own money just on the patent and prototype for one of his recent inventions, an anti-theft credit card holder.
Not everybody goes the patent route. Soutar wants his environmental inventions to be available to anyone, while innovation comes so fast in much of the tech sector that the slow-moving and outdated patent process is of little use. Getting patents right isn’t easy, as a patent application needs to be narrow enough to signal a product is unique and new, yet broad enough to protect against competitors simply making a small modification and securing a new patent.
Should someone infringe on your patent, you’ll also need deep pockets to fight them in court. “It doesn’t matter how right you are, how good you think your patent is, how good your legal team is, unless you’ve got the money for the fight,” says Stewart, who is in court right now fighting a copycat despite having patented the Handybar in more than 30 countries.
And even when all goes well on the patent front, the work has barely begun.
“Years ago, I was in a discussion and was asked which was more important, the business plan or the technology,” says VIATeC’s Dan Gunn. “Now that I’ve been at VIATeC for 10 years, I’m pretty sure it’s the business plan.”
Eric Jordan says inventors need to make an early decision: “Are you going to turn this into a business to make money on or is this more of a hobby that you enjoy? Because if it’s something you want to make into a business, then it’s no longer about it being fun.”
Finding money is a major stumbling block. Most inventors rely on investments from friends and family to get them started. But that may not even get them to the prototype stage, let alone to market. Outside investors aren’t likely to step forward until they’re sure something is marketable, leaving inventors to scramble for the interim funds to prove that their idea is indeed marketable.
Big money — $2 million or more — simply isn’t available in our region. Small money, like the $20,000 Soutar figures he needs to carry on his solar boat work, can be equally hard to find, as grant programs and investors tend to focus on larger amounts. Personality type can be a factor as well. “The people who have these great ideas are often introverts. They don’t know how to talk about their ideas,” says Vancouver inventor Maya
Sinclair, president of the B.C. Inventors Society.
“It’s a big leap, going from your garage to Main Street,” says Djukastein. “The expectations are extraordinarily high out there. The things we could invent 20 or 30 years ago and sell to local retailers — they’re not good enough anymore in this very demanding world. It spits out inventors at high speed.
“The really tricky part is that inventors don’t know what they don’t know. Will you end up patenting something that doesn’t have a market or marketing something that doesn’t have a patent?”
Got a little something you’ve been working on in your own garage? Brace yourself for a long haul. For starters, dig deep to establish that you really do have an original idea. The inventors interviewed here all stressed that however clever you think your idea is, chances are someone has already thought of it. You’ll also need your friends and family behind you with their wallets open and the guidance of people who have been through the process.
“I’ve made so many mistakes, more mistakes than I’ve ever done right things, that’s for sure,” says Stewart. “But the big, big bonus for me was having people who allowed me to take up their time to find out how to do things better. People in Victoria have been very, very good to me.”
It’ll never be easy. But it certainly won’t be dull. And when things are really cooking, the feeling is by all accounts amazing: Jordan’s wife told him that on the day he sold Pure Edge Solutions to IBM, he had the same look on his face as the day he married her.
“It’s not often you’re on a roll as an inventor. But when you are, it’s fun,” says Mayzel. “The work takes over, gets a life of its own. At moments like that, it’s a great place to be.”
Avenue Innovations: Handybar
When knee surgery laid up one-time car salesman Ian Stewart 10 years ago and left him struggling to get out of his car, the Handybar was born. Several dozen prototypes and countless trade shows later, the little device has gone global.
Stewart’s company is built solely around the success of the Handybar. The company has sold hundreds of thousands of the little gadgets ($39.95 retail) out of distribution centres in Sidney, Arizona, and China.
“After my surgery, I realized I wasn’t the only guy who couldn’t get out of my car. All around me I’d see people, especially older people, having trouble.”
His Handybar helps people brace against a vehicle’s doorframe while getting in or out, like the armrest on a chair. “We get letters all the time from people thanking us for letting them have some independence again. That’s pretty nice,” says Stewart.
Stewart made the first Handybar prototype in his kitchen out of aluminum and foam rubber. Strong sales mean his award-winning invention now is manufactured in China. The company stepped things up a notch this year with the hiring of a new CEO, Patrick Grove, to take the business to “the next level,” says Stewart.
A good patent is essential for gadget-type inventions like Stewart’s, and he’s got a stack of them for more than 30 countries. “But we’ve already been copied, so now we’re into a whole new business of managing patent attorneys and protecting our patents. Intellectual property is only as good as the money you have to protect it.”
Business finances have been a rollercoaster ride to this point, with the company nearly “buckling” several times. Stewart says the best thing he ever did was start taking the advice of the many seasoned business people who reached out to him over the years. The jump into international markets was particularly challenging: “You definitely need more experienced
people for that.”
Has the Handybar got lasting power? “As long as there are old people in cars, we’ll probably be in business for a while,” says Stewart.
Asked to sum up his experience as a successful inventor, Stewart answers without hesitation: “Regular guy, played a little soccer, bad knees. Had an idea and was too dumb to quit.”