Muskegon Inventors Network Offers Advice, Caution And Hope

April 7, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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MUSKEGON — Would-be inventors need not worry so much about someone stealing their ideas. What they really need to beware of are the scammers who prey on would-be inventors.

That's one of the first things new members learn when they join the Muskegon Inventors Network, according to its president, Orville Crain.

Crain organized Muskegon Inventors Network about three years ago with guidance from the United Inventors Association (www.uiausa.org). Crain’s organization is a West Michigan nonprofit support group where an inventor can learn and network with others who are established inventors or are working on their first invention. The group also includes business owners, marketing experts and various types of professionals with experience in taking a creative idea all the way to the marketplace.

Muskegon Inventors Network, which is sponsored by Huntington Bank, now has about 62 members, many of whom meet each month to share knowledge and experiences that might help all of them be more successful. It's a good starting place for someone who has an idea and wants to do something with it.

"It's one thing to have an idea. It's another to realize how challenging the process really is" to take the idea to fruition, said Crain. "The idea is the small part."

"There is the myth of the million dollar idea," said Crain, referring to the urban legend about somebody who had an idea and sold it for a million dollars. If an inventor makes any money at all, it's only "after a ton of work," he said.

The key question right at the start, he said, is: Is the idea really marketable? Are consumers really going to buy the product?

Some people come up with an idea and set a goal of getting it patented.

"The goal is not to get a patent. The goal is to make money," he said.

Crain has an inventor's credentials. He is one of the co-inventors of a successful product called Klever Kutter, and he also teaches an adult education class at Muskegon Community College called Should You Patent Your Creative Idea?

"In my class I tell them, 'I may break your heart but I'll save you thousands and thousands of dollars,'" he said. "You don't need to spend a lot of money to get to the point where you know (the product) is going to sell."

There are many legitimate invention development companies that help inventors with their ideas, but both Crain and the Web site of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office point out that some “consultants” are really scammers.

Some people have an idea for something that really isn't going to sell, "but they just won't let it go. Finally they end up at one of these scammers — and those guys love your idea," said Crain.

The scammers begin by charging a fee to evaluate the idea, then another fee for a more thorough evaluation, then more fees for a marketing plan, and so on.

"Then they say, 'You've got a million dollar idea! We'll guarantee you a patent and a full marketing plan.' But it's another 12 grand at that point," said Crain.

Crain knows a Holland man who fervently pursued his idea for a new product. He borrowed money to pay consultants, which ultimately involved another mortgage on his house and put such a strain on his marriage that divorce was in the offing. Finally the man and his wife reconciled, and he admitted to himself that he had been duped.

"He told me, ‘We've accepted the fact that we spent $13,000 on a plaque for the wall.'"

The plaque represented the patent the man had gotten. "He never made any money off of it," said Crain.

Jeff Jacobson, an intellectual property attorney with the Parmenter O'Toole law firm in Muskegon, said it is easier to get a patent than some people might think — but patents vary, and not all offer an equal level of protection. He said there is a frequently heard statistic suggesting that 96 percent of all patents never return as much money to the inventor as the patent cost.

Jacobson, a board member and treasurer of Muskegon Inventors Network, said would-be inventors have a lot of research to do on many levels, including their potential market and who they partner with along the way. The network is a good way to get a feel for which invention development companies are legitimate, he said. He also suggests checking with the Better Business Bureau or local chamber of commerce. Companies that are scammers tend to change their names often, he noted.

The Muskegon Inventors Network is also a great source of encouragement to the neophyte inventor, as exemplified by member Deb Tacoma of Zeeland. A self-described stay-at-home-mom, two years ago she suffered a broken back in an auto accident. During her long recovery, she came up with an idea for a personal hygiene device for people with limited mobility.

Today Tacoma has a provisional patent pending on her product, Freedom Wand. She is represented by Daniel Girdwood of Price, Heneveld, Cooper, DeWitt & Litton LLP, an intellectual property law firm in Grand Rapids. Girdwood said there are "hundreds, if not thousands" of people in West Michigan who hold patents, and others with ideas that could be patented.

From the start, Tacoma did a great deal of legwork on her own. She met with ESS TEC Inc., an injection molding company in Holland, which instantly liked her idea and will be producing the first Freedom Wands in April, according to an ESS TEC spokesperson. Display Pack in Grand Rapids is working on the blister packaging for the product.

Tacoma found a major hospital that was willing to help by testing prototypes and suggesting improvements. She also got help from the Michigan Small Business & Technology Development Center, headquartered at GVSU, which helped her work through cost projections and a marketing analysis. GVSU marketing professor Paul Lane helped keep her on track with checklists, said Tacoma.

In April she will attend a major occupational therapy trade show in Long Beach, Cal., where she will be aggressively marketing her product.

She won't reveal how much she has invested so far, but "it's a lot!"

Tacoma is aware of the scammers who prey on neophyte inventors. After she started doing extensive research on the Internet, she was flooded with e-mails from people wanting to help with her invention — but of course, they all wanted money.

Does she actually have an order yet?

"Nope," she said, cracking a big smile. It's not a nervous smile; it's apparently one of anticipation. A distributor studying the registered attendees for the Long Beach tradeshow saw Tacoma's product and called her, expressing interest in adding her product to his catalog.

It was Girdwood who suggested she check out the Muskegon Inventors Network, while she waited for the search of existing patents to ensure her idea hadn't already been patented.

"At first I thought, 'I'm not really an inventor. I don't belong there,'" said Tacoma.

But she went to a meeting, and since then, she said, the members have been an invaluable resource.

Crain said anyone can attend one meeting for free. To attend a second time, a person must join, which entails an annual dues payment of $40. Meetings are the third Thursday of every month, from 6-8 p.m. in the Blue and Gold Room at Muskegon Community College.

For more information, see www.muskegoninventorsnetwork.org, or call (231) 719-1290.

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