Inventors Eye


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The Dreams Ideas Are Made Of

Ideas. They pop in and out of our minds a thousand times a day, and sometimes, if we’re lucky, one of them is good enough to launch an invention, a story, or a life-long pursuit.

But where do ideas come from in the first place? Inspiration seems to strike out of nowhere and during times when we least expect it or even think it is possible.

The Internet is brimming with stories about inventions and discoveries that appeared in dreams. Einstein is said to have begun contemplating the theory of relativity after dreaming about cows when he was a teenager. There’s also the story of Elias Howe, inventor of the sewing machine, who got the idea for a needle with the eye at its tip after dreaming about an incident involving spear-wielding cannibals. The list of dream-born creations goes on and on, from the lyrics of famous songs to the molecular structures for common chemicals. Are these stories true? We’ll have to take the Internet’s word for it, but there’s no denying we can have ideas in our dreams, and for many inventors they can be a source of inspiration. In fact, Inventors Eye has featured more than one independent inventor who literally had dreams of invention.

Remember Spark of Genius Sandy Stein? She got the idea for the Finders Key Purse in a dream where her deceased father instructed her on how to create a device that helps women prevent their keys from becoming lost in the bottom of their handbags.

Inventors Eye’s most recent spark of genius, Kim Meckwood, also got the idea for her Click & Carry in a dream. She needed to solve the problem of carrying multiple bags of groceries up long flights of stairs to her apartment, and that’s exactly what she did. But for Kim, getting ideas while asleep is nothing new. She said dreaming is a way for her to process her thoughts and allow ideas to percolate and rise to the surface. As it turns out, this is also what some experts say dreaming is all about.

Most dreaming occurs during rapid eye movement (REM), the period of sleep when the eyes erratically dart to and fro beneath the eyelids. REM sleep is also marked by increased brain activity. Various theories attempt to explain the purpose of dreaming and REM (none of which have a consensus in the scientific community). According to one, REM is the result of the brain processing and organizing the day’s thoughts, sights, and sounds. In this way, dreams might be a way for us to contemplate things that we are unable to or unwilling to contemplate during waking hours—or a way for us to finally grasp the solution to a problem that puzzled us.

Aside from the occasional dream, inventors get their ideas in many different ways. While stories of invention often start with a common problem that needs fixing, the way inventors arrive at the solution can be varied. Most solutions are the result of trial and error, thinking and perseverance—like the Wright Brothers’ flying machine. Others still are the result of mere accident—Post-It Notes and vulcanized rubber were stumbled upon while their inventors were pursuing a different angle. And then there is the proverbial light bulb moment, when inspiration feels so new and disruptive it seems almost miraculous. But there’s a rub: it turns out a lot of good ideas are really just additions to, or new directions taken from, already existing ideas.

One thing is clear: innovation happens in increments. Even during today’s rapid technological expansion, most new mindboggling creations are the result of teams of researchers and engineers analyzing previous devices and processes, and figuring out how to make them better. Even independent inventors solving everyday problems are adding their own ideas to ones that already exist. Invention does not occur in a vacuum.

This collaborative system of productivity is common today, but that wasn’t always the case. Ideas have not always had free reign to intermingle and bounce off each other. In fact, some experts, including notable science and technology writer Steven Johnson, credit the arrival of a truly collaborative “marketplace of ideas” to something that many of us take a warming to: coffee.

First appearing on the European continent in the mid-1600s, coffee houses quickly took hold as everyone from noblemen to street sweepers clamored in for a caffeine kick. The result, says Johnson, was that people from all walks of life began mingling and rubbing shoulders. Naturally, so did their ideas. Coffee houses were a gathering place to talk about every subject, from politics and philosophy to science and technology. The collaborative environment that sprung up in European coffee houses in the 17th century gave rise to what became known as the Enlightenment, itself leading to scientific and technological revolutions and even the modern patent system.

Just as most good ideas are not as isolated as they appear, the majority of patents do not detail entirely new inventions. Rather, they show novel improvements to existing technology. And while patents protect inventors’ exclusive rights to their inventions for a limited time, the U.S. patent system, as it is enshrined in our Constitution, is uniquely designed to “Promote the Progress of Science and Useful Arts.”

Every time an inventor receives a patent, he or she adds to the archive of mankind’s collective good ideas. Patents force new ideas to enter the marketplace and replace or improve the old. The state of the art advances, and the process repeats itself ad infinitum. You might even say that the patent system is the coffee house of intellectual property, where inventors and their inventions come together to mingle and learn and take new directions.

So go ahead: have another cup of Joe, but always remember to dream.

Alex Camarota : Office of Innovation Development

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Invention Ambassadors (from left to right) Vinod Veedu, Karen Burg, Paul Sanberg, Paul Stamets, Sorin Grama.

Meet the Inaugural Class of Invention Ambassadors

The role of inventions in our enjoyment and quality of life cannot be understated. From the first stone tools to the photovoltaic cell, humanity has come a long way.

On July 2, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in partnership with the Lemelson Foundation, kicked off the inaugural Invention Ambassadors Program with an event at the AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C. The new program celebrates and highlights the importance of invention and inventors in society.

Chosen for their accomplishments and their commitment to invention, ambassadors will enthusiastically support invention and invention education by attending speaking engagements and other events across the country and help disseminate the program’s message across broad audiences.

At the kickoff event, each member of the inaugural class of Invention Ambassadors made a short presentation, demonstrating their impressive and diverse spectrum of fields and specialties. The presentations were recorded and are available for viewing.

Inaugural class of Invention Ambassadors:

Karen J.L. Burg - A pioneer in breast tissue engineering and newly appointed vice president for research at Kansas State University.

Rory Cooper - One of the country’s leading experts on assistive technologies for people with disabilities, he holds several prestigious academic appointments at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.

Sorin Grama - Cofounder and CEO of Promethean Power Systems, a clean-energy startup committed to improving conditions in developing regions of the world.

Paul R. Sanberg - Founder and president of the National Academy of Inventors and Senior Vice President for Research & Innovation, among other distinguished academic titles, at the University of South Florida, Sanberg is an inventor listed on approximately 100 health-related patents.

Steve Sasson - Inventor of the digital camera, recipient of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation and National Inventors Hall of Fame inductee.

Paul Stamets - Noted mycologist and founder of Fungi Perfecti and Host Defense Organic Mushrooms, he holds nine patents for innovative fungi-based solutions to a variety of problems facing human populations.

Vinod Veedu - Director of strategic initiatives at Oceanit and inventor of the world’s smallest nanobrush.

Read each ambassador’s full bio and impressive list of accomplishments at Invention Ambassadors website.

Among the program’s several goals is to increase society’s awareness of invention and inventors and support and foster the conditions necessary for innovation and a robust technological economy. The program also seeks to heighten awareness about the role of invention in finding solutions to global challenges and celebrates inventors and inventions that improve and sustain the Earth’s environment. 

Inventors Eye congratulates the inaugural class of Invention Ambassadors and looks forward to following their efforts to promote invention, science, and technological progress.

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Patent drawing for U.S. Patent 4,910,814, splash pool for recreational water slides.

Patents Pick-5
Patent Cures for the Summertime Blues

Options for summer fun are limitless: cookouts, picnics, barbeques, ice cream socials, camping, riding bicycles, and so much more. But how fun would summer be without some of the great inventions that help us enjoy the season? 

Note: This article is part of an ongoing series detailing some of the Inventors Eye staff’s favorite patents. For each article, the writer selects their five favorite patents under a given theme. This list is from Outreach Coordinator Dennis Forbes.

Portable Barbeque Grill Assembly
U.S. Patent No. 4,878,476

Over the years, outdoor grilling has become a favorite pastime for many even after summer is over. I like this grill because it is an on-the-go grill that is easy to set up and break down. It can be carried to parks, campsites, tailgate parties, family reunion picnics, or whatever other summer shindig you have planned. Portability has advantages for both fast- and slow-paced lifestyles.

Ice Cream Scoop
U.S. Patent No. 4,721,449

As a kid, I loved eating ice cream, and I still do. My grandmother would use a scooper to serve up a curled wad of ice cream on cone, bowl, or homemade blueberry pie. As I got older, I too began using an ice cream scooper to serve up good sized helpings of deliciousness. The device used for scooping has changed since my childhood, but there’s still nothing like seeing a scooper full of delicious ice cream. Take it from me; the ice cream scooper is a great invention.  

Splash Pool for Recreational Water Slides
U.S. Patent No. 4,910,814

Whether you get a rush or you scream all the way down a waterslide, the sheer thrill will make you want do it again and again. When my daughter was younger, she and I spent hours in the waterpark, and frankly I would just lose all sense of time. Hearing, “Daddy, can I do it again?” caused me to stand in the waterslide line quite a bit.  Once you finish the slide, you suddenly realize that the thrill of going down was just too short, and you want to do it again. Gone are my days of waterslides, but I have lots of fond summertime memories sliding down them for a splash of fun.

Beverage Mixer
U.S. Patent No. 1,480,914

Drinking a cold refreshing drink on a hot and muggy day brings welcome relief.  Likewise, drinking an organic smoothie can cause you to uncontrollably blurt out a loud sigh of “Ahhhh” after your first gulp. The fun part about using a smoothie blender is that you make a drink that the whole family will enjoy. Because you can make all kinds of icy cold concoctions with a blender, it’s an indispensable kitchen gadget.

Digital Camera
U.S. Patent No. 4,131,919

As a former photographer for the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), I loved the fact that digital camera technology gave me instant digital images, which I could either save or delete.  Eliminating the step of having to send out a roll of film for development enabled me to quickly post and circulate photos taken at breaking news events at the USPTO. The first digital camera was invented in 1978. It was not portable, but starting in the 1990s, widespread commercial introduction of small digital cameras disrupted the market and made film cameras obsolete for practical use. Today, digital cameras allow you to instantly capture keepsake summer moments. Have you taken a “selfie” lately?

Dennis Forbes : Office of Innovation Development

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Dr. Nate Storey, inventor of the ZipGrow Tower and co-owner of Bright Agrotech.

Spark of Genius
Growing the Distance

If you find a problem that needs solving, chances are there are others who have the same problem. Sometimes, however, you need to convince them they have a problem.

This was the case for Dr. Nate Storey, inventor of the ZipGrow Tower and co-owner of Bright Agrotech in Laramie, Wyoming. The region’s climate presents particular problems for growers; most produce must be grown in greenhouses for at least part of the season.

“Those heating costs are high,” Nate said, “and they are something that a lot of cold-climate growers deal with.”

ZipGrow is an innovative way of gardening that differs from traditional soil gardening in several ways. It uses a soilless hydroponic or aquaponic method where the plants are arranged vertically rather than horizontally.

According to Nate, “That's what the methodology comes down to: analyzing the production potential of an area based on volume as opposed to square footage.”

Essentially, the ZipGrow Tower vastly increases the amount of vegetation that can be grown in a small amount of space. While Nate developed the technology specifically for commercial growers, it is versatile enough for urban and home garden applications as well.   

After recognizing that his invention had many advantages over traditional gardening, Nate took on the task of educating and convincing others that he’d found the solution to a problem they did not know they had.

Nate received both a master’s and a doctorate in agronomy from the University of Wyoming and came up with the invention while doing research for his master’s degree. Nate did not begin his education with the thought of becoming an inventor or starting a business, but after trying to use some of the systems available at the time, he realized that “none of them really worked for the applications I wanted to use them for.”

An innovation was born.

Nate knew he wanted something modular, easy to move, and easy to use. Typical hydroponic systems use a “growing medium”—often small rocks or pebbles submersed in water that allow plant roots to bind to for support while absorbing nutrients from the water.

“I wanted a media-based technique, but one that was not any of the traditional plant production media.” So, he set out to create a better solution.

Nate’s invention process was not without its problems. Since he was developing his idea as part of his master’s degree studies, he had access to the Research Product Center at the university, which Nate credits for giving him and his two partners the ability to start their business.

“We were a bunch of poor kids who had no business starting a business,” said Nate. “Without the Research Product Center, we would not have a business.”

Nate indicated that the most difficult part of the invention process was sourcing the material for the growing medium.

“It took me a long time to find a material similar to what I wanted and then work with a supplier to develop a material specifically for my application.” The final product was composed of a polyester matrix.

In starting the invention process, Nate did not necessarily think of commercializing the idea or starting a business.

“I was just looking for a better way to do something that would solve my problem at the time,” said Nate. “It’s very selfish. But, once you fix it you say, well maybe other people have this problem.”

It was around this time that Nate and his partners thought it would be a good idea to create a company and take the invention to market.

Thanks to the Research Product Center’s help during the filing process, Nate’s invention received U.S. patent no. 8,327,582. Because the idea was developed while Nate was working toward his degree at the University of Wyoming and with the university’s resources, the patent is assigned to the university and Nate is listed as the inventor.

Nate said that it was the protection of the patent that encouraged and enabled him and his partners to start the company.

“We spent every penny we had to get started—buy our initial inventory, get going, and figure out manufacturing,” said Nate. “That would not have been possible without feeling like our idea was protected.”

Because the university owns the patent, Nate’s company licenses the use of the technology for its product. Nate said that “for [student] inventors who have interest in commercializing their patents, oftentimes there is an opportunity to come in and license the patents from the university on very good terms,” adding that “it’s really a leg up if you’re a small business.”

Nate currently has several patent applications pending at the United States Patent and Trademark Office for improvements and other innovations based on the technology he developed.

“The beautiful thing about being an inventor is that you really are the first person to know about what you invented. So if you are doing something really unique that could spawn a bunch of other technologies, you have the opportunity to develop your tech and then to build on it and continue to file patents on all the other great things that you can invent in the same line.”

Nate indicated that one of the hardest and most challenging things has been figuring out how to run a business and get it off the ground.

“You are up and down a lot,” said Nate. “It took many, many years of me working for no pay—working 80-100 hours per week for no pay. You never get that time back. A lot of people told me to quit.”

But determination and a good product paid off.

“We’re trying to scale our business like a software business, but we’re manufacturers,” said Nate. This model has worked for the company, as Bright Agrotech grew by 800 percent last year and is on target to do at least the same this year.

The company started with all of its manufacturing in Laramie, Wyoming, but as Nate said, “We can’t scale our personnel at the rate we are growing our business if we’re going to do all the manufacturing in-house.”  

Although the company has had to find manufacturers outside of Laramie, everything is made in the United States and assembled in Laramie.

While running and making a go of the business has been the most challenging and difficult thing, Nate also said it is one of the most rewarding aspects as well.

“There aren’t a whole lot of people out there who have the opportunity to build equity in themselves. I love the idea that when I go out and I break my back and I sacrifice things and I work long hours for years on end . . . that sacrifice is rewarded, and it’s mine and not someone else’s.”

When asked what advice he would give to others, Nate said “You have to be wise and you have to listen to the people you respect as far as the value of the product and the potential of the product. If the product doesn’t have the potential then it’s not something you should be doing, but at the same time, there is always a certain rebellion that has to go with it too because a lot of people tell you you’re an idiot for even thinking about it or starting. And you pretty much just have to fly in the face of conventional wisdom on some issues and do it anyway, and that’s the hard thing—making that judgment call, but once made it’s 100 percent about endurance.”

Erin Block : Office of Innovation Development (Extern)

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Paying with a credit card on a laptop.

Patent Owners – Beware of Maintenance Fee Scam

The United States Patent and Trademark Office has previously warned stakeholders about unsolicited communications regarding maintenance fees, but it’s something that bears repeating.

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16th Annual Independent Inventors Conference. August 15-16, 2014. USPTO, Alexandria, Va.
events and announcements

August and September

Upcoming events and news in the world of innovation

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Organizations and resources for the independent inventor community

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The USPTO gives you useful information and non-legal advice in the areas of patents and trademarks in Inventors Eye. The patent and trademark statutes and regulations should be consulted before attempting to apply for a patent or register a trademark. These laws and the application process can be complicated. If you have intellectual property that could be patented or registered as a trademark, the use of an attorney or agent who is qualified to represent you in the USPTO is advised.

In this issue
The Dreams Ideas Are Made of
Meet the Inaugural Class of Invention Ambassadors
Patents Pick-5
Patent Cures for the Summertime Blues
Spark of Genius
Growing the Distance
Patent Owners – Beware of Maintenance Fee Scam
events and announcements
August and September


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