One tantalizing characteristic of being an inventor is that anyone can become one. Another is that a single good idea can make you rich.
Throughout history, inventors have followed many paths to success. Some names evoke visions of an exceptional idea that generated fame, wealth or notoriety: Jonas Salk, Erno Rubik, Joseph Guillotin.
Some inventors develop a way to make an already-existing product unique. Xavier Roberts created squash-faced dolls, gave them adoption papers, and made a fortune with Cabbage Patch Kids. Others try to invent one thing but come up with another: Patsy Sherman was designing a new kind of rubber when she spilled a latex emulsion onto an assistant's shoe. When they tried to wash the solution off the shoe -- and saw that water and cleaning fluids simply beaded up and rolled off it -- Scotchgard was born.
Don Wetzel is in yet another category of inventors: those just trying to make life easier for themselves. In 1969, Wetzel came up with the idea of automatic teller machines while waiting in line at a bank in Dallas.
New Orleans has spawned its share of inventors. Locals know how pharmacist Antoine Amedee Peychaud (whose family tree includes current candidate for state representative Rosalind Peychaud) mixed his namesake bitters with cognac and created the cocktail. But how many know that New Orleanian John Hampson found a way to keep slatted window shades in place and, in 1841, patented Venetian blinds? Or that in 1913, Albert Baldwin Wood designed the Wood screw pump, a drainage device still used by the city's Sewerage and Water Board?
Legend has it that a New Orleans dentist named Josef Delarose Lascaux invented cotton candy, although someone else patented it. Whether Lascaux was out to increase business for himself is a question lost in time.
New Orleans schoolchildren learn about Norbert Rillieux. Born to a freed slave in New Orleans in 1806, Rillieux became one of history's great African-American inventors when he created a vacuum device that evaporated sugar. Until then, slaves evaporated sugar by dumping sugarcane syrup from kettle to kettle. Rillieux's invention revolutionized the sugar industry, and his influence is still recognized today -- this Thursday, Dillard University and the American Chemical Society are sponsoring the National Historic Chemical Landmark Dedication to honor Rillieux and his groundbreaking invention.
But the most famous inventor linked to New Orleans isn't commonly known as an inventor at all. A teenage Abraham Lincoln was inspired to create a device that freed stranded river vessels while he worked on Mississippi River flatboats traveling to New Orleans. Lincoln later obtained a patent for an air-chamber device that lifted boats over sandbars. Though his creation was never used, Lincoln is the only U.S. president to have held a patent.
Today, it's more difficult to get a patent than it was when Lincoln was alive. In fact, bringing a concept from a good idea to an original product is often expensive, frustrating, complicated and time-consuming.
But that doesn't stop people from trying.
Flush With Success
For Jason Miller, inspiration came from a 1998 train trip with two buddies, a duffel bag full of beer, and frequent trips to the bathroom.
"We were thinking, 'Why should we have to get up and go anywhere?'" recalls Miller, 28, of Hammond, whose day job involves developing corporate Web applications for a New Orleans company. Miller and his friends visualized a device to let people "sneak a leak" while dressed -- allowing urine to either drain out onto the ground or be collected in a portable bladder. They came up with the name Sneaky Leaker and, for women, Sneaky Leak-Her.
"We were thinking how great it would be for Mardi Gras," Miller says.
They consulted a nurse who said similar products existed for incontinent people. Miller and co-creator Clay Mixon scoured medical supply companies for the components: a disposable external catheter lined with a Band Aid-like adhesive (condoms for men; flexible funnels for women), medical tubing, and a leg bag. Attach an external catheter to the tubing, run the tube down your pant leg and past your shoe, or attach it to the bag -- and you're all dressed up with someplace to go.
Miller and his friends assembled the parts and tested the Sneaky Leaker, with sometimes messy results. "The first time Clay demonstrated it in front of people, he put the connector on wrong and said 'Hey everybody, look! I'm peeing!' And he peed all over himself," says Miller, whose girlfriend gamely tested the Sneaky Leak-Her.
The medical equipment used in the Sneaky Leaker is already patented; Miller and Mixon added a Velcro strap to keep the tubing in place and obtained a design patent, which gave them license to use the equipment in a unique combination.
Miller and Mixon launched the Sneaky Leaker during Mardi Gras 2001 to a mixed response. They sold thousands from carts along parade routes, for $10 a pop. Customers lauded them as heroes, while critics lambasted them for selling a product that could open the floodgates for public urination. Miller claims several police officers harassed him, while others bought Sneaky Leakers on the sly for their long shifts.
So far their company, French Quarter Novelties, has sold "well over 10,000" Sneaky Leakers from its Web site to customers in 17 countries. Miller has launched lines of Sneaky Leakers aimed at hunters, skiers and motorcycle riders, and he says the Sneaky Leaker is also popular among the elderly and incontinent, for whom its components were originally designed. Online, the products sell for $20 and come with three disposable catheters.
Miller says Sneaky Leakers have become popular among Mardi Gras float riders, and claims to have sold one to a prominent king last year. "I don't know if he used it," Miller says, "but he did personally buy one."
A Better Termite Trap
Ed Bordes never intended to build a better mousetrap. But he did invent a better termite trap, and today he's a richer man because of it.
As director of the Mosquito and Termite Control Board in a city where infestations are as routine as summer squalls, Bordes is used to challenges. So when a tricky problem cropped up in 1994, Bordes and two co-workers simply devised a solution. Today, their "Termite Bait Covers" are a fixture in cities nationwide.
New Orleans had been testing termite traps that worked when buried in soil surrounding a building. The traps are baited with toxic chemicals; when the termites return to their nests inside the building, they infect the rest of the hive.
Bordes and his colleagues had to bait the area around the Pontalba Apartments in Jackson Square, but there was no soil around the building. They decided to drill holes into pavement surrounding the apartments, and install the termite traps in the holes. Bordes and his colleagues then developed aluminum "termite caps" that resemble miniature manhole covers. City workers can remove them when it's time to replace the traps.
Bordes and his colleagues patented the caps, and New Orleans has since sold thousands around the world. The caps were the impetus for a unique city ordinance passed last year, modeled after "intellectual property" guidelines in universities and companies. The policy lets city employees share the profits from inventions they devise on the job.
"As far as we know, we're the first city to come up with this," says Bordes, who believes the ordinance will encourage creativity among city workers. "I think it's a good incentive."
Bordes never thought of himself as an inventor, but after the success of the termite caps is inspired to develop more "termite- and mosquito-related" solutions. "There are some great ideas out there that we haven't touched on yet," he says.
"I think everybody thinks deep down they have ideas that are good, but do you ever have the opportunity? I like the old saying that necessity is the mother of invention -- but opportunity is the father of success."
Planning for Accidents
For medical researchers and physicians with groundbreaking ideas, concepts often linger on the drawing board for years. Hurdles include obtaining research funding and approval by the federal Food and Drug Administration.
Most universities have offices to license the inventions of researchers and other employees. At Tulane University, researchers are trying to take it a step further by starting a company aimed at accelerating the notoriously slow process of licensing and marketing pharmaceuticals.
At the forefront of this push is Dr. David Coy, whose first invention for Tulane -- a prostate-cancer drug -- was "a serendipitous accident."
In the 1970s, Coy won a grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop a new type of female contraceptive. While experimenting with a compound made of certain peptides -- small chains of amino acids -- Coy found that the compound lowered testosterone levels. Since testosterone is a growth factor in prostate cancer, Coy realized it could be used as a potential cancer treatment. Tulane now holds the license to the drug, sold mainly in Europe under the name Decapeptyl.
"There was a huge amount of luck involved in discovering that, and it was not anticipated," Coy says. "All that funding was going toward contraceptives, and it ended up being a treatment for prostate cancer. That shows you that funding for research is never wasted. Quite frequently, things 'fall out' that end up being major advancements."
Coy also produced Lanreotyde, a drug for patients who suffer from an overabundance of growth hormones. His inventions are two of the three pharmaceuticals licensed by Tulane (the other is the infertility drug Cetrorelix), and Coy hopes the fledgling company will expand that number exponentially in the future.
These days, Coy is trying to raise start-up money for the company, Synscia LLC, which would use profits from its licensed pharmaceuticals to fund research of other promising drugs. "Right now we have to go through the business of raising money through government grants, through private foundations," Coy says. "But if we have a viable company, it speeds up the process."
The company's initial focus would be on peptide research for cancer treatments, Coy says. "Peptides are attracted to tumor cells very specifically, and ... as part of its biological activity, the peptide gets into the cell. So you can use it as a guided missile. The whole oncology field is going [the way of peptides], rather than use a shotgun approach and just inject something and hope it kills the tumor cells before it kills the patient," he says.
"It's exciting, coming up with ways of making these things ... it's a big adrenaline rush when you find some neat compound," Coy says. "That's what it's all about. The patients benefit in the end."
'Come on, Doc, Get It Going'
Pharmaceutical development isn't the only branch of medical research that seems to move in slow motion. Two New Orleans doctors who developed cardiac devices say there is a demonstrated need for their inventions, but are years away from getting their creations on the market.
Dr. John Pigott, a surgery professor at Tulane's Health Sciences Center, invented the "Biventricular Pacemaker Implanting Device." It's a guiding apparatus that makes it easier for cardiologists to insert pacemaker wires into the left ventricle of the heart.
Standard pacemakers have wires, or leads, that send electrical signals to the right ventricle. Biventricular pacemakers install leads in both ventricles, improving pumping efficiency. One reason they are not more widely used is because inserting the device in the left ventricle is difficult.
"Even for the super-experts that do this all the time, getting access to the coronary sinus of these patients is not an easy thing," says Pigott. "That coronary sinus is very hard to find, or it can be. ... What I invented is an instrument that permits the operator to find the coronary sinus very easily."
Pigott's guiding device would open up the possibility of biventricular pacing for thousands of patients. "It is generally put in by cardiologists who are experts in rhythm problems of the heart, and this device would potentially open the market up so that almost anybody who puts pacemakers in, could put [biventricular pacemakers] in."
Pigott has developed a prototype and applied for a patent, and says he is discussing the device with interested companies. He will begin testing on patients "once we get one of the pacemaker companies ready to act with us in partnership." Pigott is hoping it would be ready to use in two years.
"One of the things that I'm finding out about inventions is that you have to file for the patent and all that kind of stuff," Pigott says. "That's just one saga. The other saga is getting companies to be interested in it, or to admit there is a market for it."
Pigott came up with the idea while installing pacemakers. It's his first invention, "and boy am I learning a lot," he says. "I'm surprised at how expensive it all is, that's number one. And number two, I'm surprised at how many times people will tell you it's probably not a good idea before someone tells you it is a good idea. It has the potential to be discouraging, but it also has stimulated me to try to think about other things."
Meanwhile, another New Orleans cardiac surgeon, Dr. Peter Moulder, says many patients are pushing him to make his "Cardiac Flow Enhancer" available. "They say, 'Come on, Doc, get it going. I need this.'"
As a medical student, Moulder says, he drew inspiration from his work with Nobel Prize-winning neurologist Charles Huggins. "He was always thinking differently," Moulder says. "I looked at him and said, 'I've got to start thinking that way.'"
Moulder's main effort is his cardiac device, which is inserted into the descending aorta and uses a pump to help control blood flow to and from the heart. It's a supplementary aid to assist a disabled heart, says Moulder, who developed the device with the now-deceased researcher Dr. Ian Findley in the early 1990s.
"It's for that group of patients who are disabled, in wheelchairs or hospitalized a few times a year, a long ways from having a transplant but who have a poor quality of life," he says. "This intent is to take over about 70 percent of the work of the heart. It's a sort of accompaniment or supplement to good medical care. They can be back on the golf course with this."
Moulder says the small unit would include a control system on the outside of the chest. The device itself doesn't touch the heart, so it wouldn't complicate later cardiac procedures. "The controlling is very simple, three settings: one for going to bed, one for routine duties, and one to get busy. You don't need fancy controls. There are three buttons on the outside along the chest wall that they just press."
Moulder has tested the device on animals and calls it "failsafe," saying that if it falters, the patient's own heart simply takes over. "If you run these systems for very long, the heart improves," he says. "If you take over some of the work of the heart, it's not overworking its capability, so it gets better."
Moulder has presented the device in the United States and Europe. He is trying to get a grant to test the device on patients. "It's still a few years away," he admits. "If we get big support fast we probably could move it along very quickly."
But Moulder's creativity doesn't stop with medical innovations. As it turns out, the Cardiac Flow Enhancer is just one of Moulder's several ideas. At the Invention/New Product Exposition (INPEX) show last year in Pittsburgh, Pa., he introduced his "Supported Canopy," which uses fluidic pressure to support an umbrella. He envisions the canopy installed onto car doors, "and when it's raining you press a button and it opens up. So when you let your umbrella down you don't get wet. The ladies loved it."
Moulder has 35 to 40 ideas "that could really do a lot of good," and describes mailing hundreds of letters about them to manufacturers, only to be ignored or rejected. "It just devastates you," says Moulder, who calls the patent process another huge roadblock to "low-level inventors like me. ... Every time I see a problem I look for a solution. I have books full of solutions. The problem is that patents cost a lot of money. I have these two patents, and I have about four other things I want to patent [immediately]. ...
"IBM gets a thousand patents a year, and I can barely get three of them. They charge hundreds of dollars just to maintain [patents] every year -- it's a big fat bureaucratic monster."
Battling the Monster
"When people come to me and say they have invented something, it's not an automatic right that they get a patent," says New Orleans patent attorney Len Brignac, of the law firm King, LeBlanc & Bland, L.L.P.
"Not every invention gets a patent," he explains. "It may have been invented before; it may have been an obvious improvement on another invention, or the person may have lost the right to patent because it has been disclosed in the public domain. ... If others were aware of the invention more than a year before application, you may lose the patent. So timeliness is important."
The first step, says Brignac, is to undertake a patentability search to discover if similar patents have been obtained. Would-be inventors can conduct the search themselves on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Web site, at the office itself in Washington, D.C., or in "patent repositories" around the country. Brignac advises clients to hire a professional patent searcher for a cost of several hundred dollars.
The goal is to find existing patents as close to the invention as possible. "You use these to draft your patent application, to avoid these patents and claim new matter that's not covered out there by prior patents," Brignac says. "The most important question people want to know is, 'How much is it going to cost to obtain a patent?'"
Inventors trying to do it themselves have to pay hundreds of dollars in patent-office fees, and have additional costs such as commissioning professional drawings. Patent attorneys generally base their fees on the complexity of the invention. Attorneys range from about $200 per hour in New Orleans to about $500 in cities such as Chicago, according to Brignac.
"For simple inventions, you might be able to find a patent attorney to do it between $4,000 and $10,000. For more complicated inventions ... these type of patents can cost tens of thousands of dollars," Brignac says.
"Other patent attorneys will quote you a flat rate from $10,000 or $15,000 where one price covers it all. The effort is preparing a very detailed patent application in which you must include an abstract and a specification and drawings ... The most important part is the claims, the legal description of what your invention covers.
"The goal of the patent attorney is to claim the broadest possible invention that's actually beyond your preferred embodiment," Brignac says. "You come up with the tool or the device and the patent attorney claims everything that's bigger and broader. You think of every possible means to accomplish something the patent is doing ... so somebody doesn't come along and knock it off."
Once an application gets to the patent office, there's at least a year-long wait for a response, Brignac says. "In almost all cases they will reject your claims because that is what they are told to do," he says. "The initial response is to be as critical as they think necessary, because their role is the gatekeeper of what is to be issued."
Applicants can either scrap their idea or challenge the rejection. The best-case scenario for obtaining a patent is about two years, and if the patent is granted, the holder must pay maintenance fees. "There are some statutes that provide for more rapid examination, if it's critical to national defense or something like that, and I believe you get expedited examination if you are a senior citizen."
But a patent is really only a "piece of paper," says Brignac, who warns that the patent primarily gives the inventor "a 20-year right to exclude others from making, using or selling the claimed invention. And if your claimed invention has little market, your right to exclude others is not going to be worth a lot.
"The first hurdle is obtaining a patent," he says. "The second hurdle is finding a market."
The Two-percent Solution
"We do let clients know there is a two percent chance that a manufacturer will be interested in their product. That's a number given by the Patent and Trademark Office, " says a spokeswoman for Invention Technologies Inc. (Invent-Tech), a Coral Gables, Fla. company that works with inventors to get their ideas on the market.
Despite the low odds, scores of hopeful inventors flock to Invent-Tech. The company conducts a search to see if the product already exists, helps them find a manufacturer, advertises their inventions -- without giving away too much detail -- and, with luck, helps them obtain a patent. The Invent-Tech spokeswoman declined to discuss the exact fees charged each inventor.
Tallulah resident Billy J. James had seen Invent-Tech ads on television. After Sept. 11, James came up with the "United We Stand Lamp." He spent the next few days surfing the channels until he saw the Invent-Tech ad again. "I called them and they sent me a package, and I sent my idea to them, and I've been working on it ever since," he says.
James is hesitant to describe the lamp, but says that "I think it's a good market idea for homeowners, apartment dwellers, office workers -- anyone who would want to display a lamp that signifies patriotism." He says Invent-Tech has shopped his lamp around to manufacturers' shows in Las Vegas and Germany, but has had no takers so far.
Another Invent-Tech client, Veronica Wilson of Donaldsonville, also has yet to find a manufacturer for her invention, which she believes could become as common a fixture in hair salons as styling gel. A cosmetologist, Wilson came up with the "Ear Protector and Forehead Shield" for people who don't like sitting under hot dryers.
"My invention focuses on giving the client relief when they're under the hair dryer; they can stay under it and be comfortable. With most styles you have to go under the dryer, and especially with little kids, they are squirming and crying -- the ear protector protects their ears and skin, and their forehead shield does that with their face."
Wilson started developing the idea about three years ago. She says Invent-Tech is advertising it on the Web site and that a video demonstration is forthcoming. "It's going to be really broadly introduced," says Wilson, a widow, who hopes her invention will eventually make a lot of money for herself and her 13-year-old daughter, Tamara, who is disabled.
"One of my major goals is to be able to spend more time with her," says Wilson, whose real dream is opening a school for disabled children in her area, where quality special education is hard to come by.
Crowley resident Ernest Mamolo is another Invent-Tech client. More than 40 years ago, Mamolo and his cousin developed a short plywood surfboard that they used at the beach "and we never went through with (patenting) it," he says. Years later, when "boogie boards" became a hit, Mamolo swore he'd always follow through with his ideas. So when Mamolo developed a supportive arthritis glove that lets the wearer continue to stay active, he contacted Invent-Tech. They are promoting his "Super Duper Garden Glove," "a simple glove, but it's amazing," Mamolo says.
"I've been a boat captain for a lot of years and I've done some shrimping in my days, and I've used my hands a lot and I hurt with arthritis. I've tried many things and honestly I suffer at night from severe pain in my joints.
"One day it just came to me and I made a prototype of this thing, and I sent it to Invent-Tech and they've been helping me out. The prototype doesn't work as good as the one that is going to come out, but it helps me. I don't suffer from pain at night. I still have some pain in my fingers but I don't have throbbing, killing pain anymore. I figured if it helped me, it would help other people."
Mamolo's experience with his arthritis glove is inspiring him to come up with other innovations. "What I've learned from Invent-Tech is you keep a notebook and pad with you. There's always things that come into your mind, and now I write them down.
"My mind doesn't stop; it keeps going," Mamolo says, echoing the hopes of every would-be Rubik or Rillieux. "I have other ideas. There are wonderful things in my head."
- A long train trip and a few six-packs inspired Jason Miller and Clay Mixon to come up with the idea of the Sneaky Leaker.
- New Orleans cardiac surgeon Dr. Peter Moulder, shown with the Outstanding Achievement Award he won at last year's INPEX invention show, has invented devices ranging from medical innovations to household improvements.