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The Invention Game--A Picky Market Can Make It a Sticky Wicket : "To give birth to an idea--to discover a great thought--an intellectual nugget, right under the dust of a field that many a brain-plow had gone over before, to be the first--that is the idea." --from "Innocents Abroad" by Mark Twain, inventor of suspenders

November 28, 1985|JOSEPH LEVY | Joseph Levy is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

Inventor Dan Friedman, 32, has 1,500 bags of Pick Stickers under his kitchen sink. They will remain there until he can figure out a way to market them.

Like 70,000 other Americans who file patents for inventions each year, Friedman thought Pick Stickers was an idea whose time had come.

"The idea of Pick Stickers was to help guitar players keep hold of their picks," he said. "I used to be a guitar player, and I know how difficult it can be to keep hold of your pick. So I invented these little round stickers, sticky on one side, rough on the other, to help guitar players hold on to them.

Stores 'Hated' Product

"The test-marketing went great. I gave a bunch of them away to my guitar-playing buddies. They really liked them. But then I tried to get the music stores to carry the product, but they hated it."

Rejection is not an unfamiliar experience for the average inventor. Experts estimate there are four to five inventions created, then abandoned, for every one that makes it into the patent books. Even the ones that make the books often don't make money.

"They prove too costly to manufacture, so they never make it to the marketplace," patent attorney Peter Lippman of Sherman Oaks said, "or they get marketed and bomb. Only about one in 10 patented inventions actually succeed in making money."

Ten percent of all patent applications come from California, and Tarzana is the site of the national headquarters for the largest and oldest inventors' organization in the country--the International Workshop for Inventors Educational Foundation (IWIEF).

"We were founded to keep inventors from being ripped off," said Maggie Weisberg, IWIEF president. "There are a lot of front-money phonies out there who charge people to market inventions but never come through. There are so many of these coming and going it's hard to keep up with them."

Helped 10,000 Inventors

Weisberg says her organization has helped more than 10,000 inventors "determine their next step, even if it meant abandonment of an idea or starting over." For $125, members get a newsletter, admission into the organization's monthly meetings, camaraderie, feedback and contacts, she said.

A handful of Valley inventors have found varying degrees of commercial success.

Inventor Jim Hoyle, 61, of Filmore has bombed with more ideas than he cares to remember. "I've had two wives," Hoyle said. "They both wanted me to give it up. I can't remember exactly what they said. You can just make it up, and I'm sure they said it at one time or another." In 1968 he developed a hit: the Grip-Rite Pencil Cushion (also known affectionately as the gripper). Hoyle devised the cushion to help his son relax while he wrote. It worked, and the gripper has gone on to stationery-store stardom.

Studio City resident Hill Sayble created a memory tickler system 20 years ago. Although his company, Trindex, is among the top 100 paper-forms companies, he still maintains his law practice.

Jesslyn Cryer of Tarzana invented a special camera bag for backpackers. In 1977, she and her sister-in-law founded their Van Nuys-based company, Tamrac. "I didn't have a career before we started this company in 1977," she said. "I was a housewife. You don't know what you can do until you try. Inventing is special because it gives you a chance to solve problems while developing your imagination."

When John Cool of Westlake Village was a teen-ager, he won a statewide science prize for inventing a voice-controlled elevator in his rural Washington high school. Inspired, he invented an elaborate device to automate his father's barn.

"I designed a system to keep the cows in the barn," he said. "We used a strip of metal which carried an electrical current. We hung it above the doors, the idea being that it would shock the cow that tried to leave."

From cow controllers, Cool went on to found Image Resource, a high-tech company that pioneered computer graphics technology. He designed a system to convert satellite impulses into photographs. Many magazines now use his technology.

Harvey Diamond, however, has to be the consummate independent inventor. The Studio City resident says he has more than 80 patents and patents pending. He is, he says, a millionaire. His inventions range from drafting pens and dental equipment to sailboats and nautical equipment.

Diamond, who is singer Neil Diamond's younger brother, recently created the BathWomb, the most expensive mass-produced bathtub on the market. The BathWomb, which sells for $11,000, features a 14-function control panel, which includes a stereo, telephone, facial mist and a pillow-headrest with massage. It also has nine adjustable water jets, the type usually found in hot tubs.

The inspiration for this invention, he says, came from his childhood. "I grew up a block from the ocean in Brooklyn," he said. "Water has always been an important part of my life. I always watched it very carefully and admire the way it moves, especially when it turns a turbine. There is a turbine in each water jet, of course."

Diamond was able to quit his job as plant manager for a rival bathtub company in 1977. Today, he is president of his own company, Water Jet, based in Canoga Park.

Pick Stick inventor Friedman is still hoping for such success. He has developed a new style of banjo strap and has a patent pending on it.

"It looks promising," he said. "After all, if I'm a hit, people will think I'm a genius. Of course, if they continue to bomb, then people will think I'm an idiot to pursue these things. That's the way this invention game works."

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