Inventors Eye
Inventors Eye | Jan2011 | vol two issue one0

The USPTO's bimonthly publication for the independent inventor community

Two line drawings submitted with the patent application of a child approaching and then using the Step'n Wash, and one line drawing of the Step'n Wash open under a double-sink.

spark of genius

The Step 'N Wash

Joi Sumpton and her retracting step stool

One of Aesop’s fables is about a thirsty crow that dropped pebbles into a water pitcher to raise the water level high enough to get a drink. The moral of this fable is, “necessity is the mother of invention.” This saying is true for Joi Sumpton. She is the inventor of Step ‘n Wash®, a retracting step stool for public restrooms designed to allow children to reach the sink and wash their own hands. Joi’s story parallels the moral of Aesop’s fable, The Crow and the Pitcher. Her necessity was to find a way to let her children wash their hands in a public restroom without her having to pick them up and hold them against the sink. Here is Joi’s story of how she created a solution that has made its way to the marketplace.

Once Joi had her idea she called her husband to let him know. He started to see if he could find anything that was similar to her idea. He checked the Internet using multiple search engines and then searched for patents on the USPTO website. He did not find anything that was similar to Joi’s idea so they decided to move forward with the idea. 

It turned out that one of Joi’s coworkers husband was a patent attorney. She contacted him and he found the idea interesting. Joi hired the attorney to prepare a provisional application, which was followed a year later with the filing of a utility application. Her attorney explained the patent process and not to expect to hear anything from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) for quite a while. That did not stop her from moving forward. She contacted a product design engineer. The engineer took Joi’s simple sketch and turned it into reality with a prototype. .

Next, Joi produced her first 200 units and promptly discovered a design flaw that resulted in all 200 units becoming very expensive scrap metal. The stool was redesigned and new units were produced correcting the problem. With new product in hand, Joi set out to make her first sales, but soon learned that no one wanted to be the first to purchase the step stool. After a suggestion from her husband, she give a number of the stools away to local businesses so she could tell potential customers that units were in use elsewhere. This turned out to be a great business decision. She started to sell units and recovered some of the debt she had accumulated with the start of her new business.

Joi received her first office action, nearly four years after filing her non-provisional application, rejecting all of her claims. Her attorney had warned her to expect a rejection. She and her husband amended the claims and then talked with the patent examiner. The examiner suggested they allow him to do an examiner’s amendment to make the application allowable over the prior art and for them to receive a patent. Once the claims were agreed to Joi and her husband contacted their design engineer and asked him to design a stool around the claims in their allowed patent application. He did. Joi filed a continuation to broaden the claims. That application is now patent 7,861,332. Another continuation has been filed to again amend the claims to provide even greater protection of their invention.

Step ‘n Wash® was not an instant success, but with the hard work of Joi and her husband, it is now making serious inroads into the marketplace. None of this would have been possible without the help from a very receptive and hard-working patent attorney willing to generate a great patent application, a fantastic product design engineer and an examiner who went the extra mile to assist an independent inventor with a dream. Joi and her husband do not have enough kind words for the work of the USPTO and the examiner that was assigned to Joi’s application. 

Because Joi and her husband had been involved with other business ventures, they did not go into this project with their eyes closed. They had a network of contacts. This is not the case for most first-time inventors who become overwhelmed with the process. They don’t know what help can be provided by the USPTO or a local Patent and Trademark Depository Library. They simply don’t know where to start and many end up seeking the help from a fraudulent invention marketing company.

Some words of advice offered by Joi and her husband for new inventors are to contact and use a good patent attorney. If you don't know a patent attorney, ask for references from other inventors. Know that the inventor is responsible for all the words in the application before it is filed with the USPTO. Work on your invention from day one; don’t wait for the patent to issue. Make sure your invention is fully covered with sound patentable claims that cannot be designed around. If necessary, file additional patent applications to get stronger protection. Determine if the invention should be manufactured by you or someone else. If you want to license the rights to your product to another company, make sure you have a viable product because licensing too soon will put you in an unfavorable position to negotiate. Finally, know when to let go of your dream. Not all inventions or products make it in the marketplace.

by John Calvert : Inventors Assistance Center