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Crown of Creation : Where has the American spirit of invention gone? Consider Ventura County, where an array of gadgets have been awarded patents.

September 02, 1993|KATHLEEN WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Where, you might ask, are the country's best minds? Where is American ingenuity revealed by remarkable inventions, design honed to a fine edge? In large metropolitan areas? New England's Yankee country? AI. T.?

Consider the crucible of Ventura County, where a stunning array of gadgets was awarded patents by the United States government. Some of these items are on the market; some are not--but it's not for lack of originality.

And the inventors are walking among us right now, for the most part unrecognized for their contributions to technology. They are leading ordinary lives, thinking up even more unlikely accessories to tempt us into parting with our money.

THE TALKING TOILET

It was Steve Herbruck of Oak View who envisioned a talking toilet seat that reminds users to lower the seat after use. The owner of an auto detailing business at the time of his brainstorm, Herbruck was thrust into electronic design by an unfortunate incident at home: He made a midnight trip to the bathroom without turning on the lights.

"I came to a very rude awakening," Herbruck said, recalling the chilling experience, "I stayed up that night and came up with the basic idea of the product."

The resulting device has a sensor that activates a nagging voice chip when a user walks away from a toilet without lowering the seat.

"At first, a friendly voice says, 'Please come back and shut the lid,' its inventor said. "The second voice is a little more stern; and the third time it yells at you."

Herbruck knew about market research. He did a door-to-door survey of 100 homes in Oxnard and Ventura, and found that every family with young children was eager to buy the device.

He proceeded through the patent process; meanwhile, other ideas surged into consciousness--the toilet seat was a watershed event in his life. He has since started his own development company, Herbruck's Research, in Ventura, where he works on his designs and develops other inventors' ideas.

He has patented items from toys to dental products. One toy, Flashball--which he developed with Camarillo inventor Doug Dykstra--is a battery-operated toy that lights up when bounced. Herbruck claims that more than 600,000 Flashballs have been sold thus far.

He is only now bringing the toilet seat to market, licensing it under the working title, Johnny Be Good.

NAIL-CLIPPING CATCHER

Many inventions are launched in the same mood as Herbruck's. Annoyance stirs anger, then imagination--and an idea is born.

Take Ravindra Athalye of Thousand Oaks, an electronics engineer. He arrived from India three years ago and sat in his kitchen, out of a job, nervously clipping his nails. This annoyed his wife, Sanju, who took objection to the clippings.

"When I see a problem, I try to solve it," said Athalye, who promptly devised Klip'N'Katch, a nail trimmer that leaves no debris.

Athalye won a patent for the gadget by virtue of the unique addition to a standard-looking clipper of tiny sidewalls, which neatly trap nail trimmings, then release them when hinged-laminate magnets are folded outward.

A national sales company is planning to offer the product through a television marketing channel.

Athalye now works full time, but has gone on to patent other problem solvers. His latest is Speed Serve, a modestly priced attachment for tennis rackets that accurately measures the velocity of a serve.

JOBLESS CREATORS

If frustration and ingenuity are factors in the dawn of an invention, a bonus ingredient seems to be joblessness.

Doren Berkovich of Thousand Oaks was disabled from a career in auto mechanics and had time on his hands. During a rainy spell in 1991, he took note of the family's two cats, which were confined to the house.

"They were becoming really ill-mannered around here. . . . They were touchy, irritable cats," Berkovich said.

His solution was not your average bag of catnip. He created a motorized, variable speed electronic mouse-on-a-string that is suspended from a scratching post, and which rotates, leaps, stops, reverses and runs on household current.

"The cat will play with it for an hour, two hours; it walks away tired and it doesn't raise hell all night," said its creator.

Mouse Chase is in pet stores locally. But Berkovich admits it's pricey for the average feline owner. Suggested retail: $59.95.

Meanwhile, in Camarillo, another out-of-work designer found inspiration. Angelo Sessa was off the job with a back injury and getting acquainted with housework when he learned of the intricate maneuvers required to put a sheet on a water bed.

"I was at home three months, so I came up with something real fast," said Sessa, who is vice president of a family manufacturing business.

He patented a long flexible shaft with a clip that expertly stretches a sheet between bed frame and massive mattress. He made up 1,000 samples, then went back to work. The samples just sat around--there was no one to market them.

"That's not my line," Sessa said. "I'm an engineer; I build things."

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