Spring's spark of genius article
Bringing Innovation Close to Home
The Office of Innovation Development (OID) hosts several programs throughout the year for small business owners, inventors, and entrepreneurs. On May 2, 2018, at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina, the USPTO hosted a forum where our staff met Thom Lindheimer, founder and chief operating officer of Lindheimer Associates Inc. Lindheimer Associates, which also operates under the name American Hygienics, manufacturers the USA Bidet. Lindheimer transformed the use of the regular domestic bidet and invented a medical toilet seat attachment known as the Perijett. His invention promotes better hygiene and self-care for customers. It also assists customers with health concerns and medical conditions suffering from a limited range of muscular motion. OID staffer Patrick Coates interviewed Lindheimer to learn more about this invention and the motivation behind it.
Patrick Coates: To bring your invention to market, what was the first thing you thought about?
Thom Lindheimer: This is a tough question. I believe there was a series of questions that I had to ask myself. They were:
Was it done (invented) for personal gain?
Was it to offer a novel solution to an existing problem?
Was it a possible solution to a problem which was just over the horizon which the inventor saw coming in the near future?
Was it simply the result of wishing to help someone out and it grew from there?
Coates: After the target market is chosen, what’s the next step an inventor should take?
Lindheimer: Realization of the target market allows the inventor to focus attention on the challenges faced in the market. This is not to say that those challenges and fixes don’t spill over into other markets. It is simply concentrated to the field of view as a product is developed.
Coates: What process did you follow to develop a prototype for your invention?
Lindheimer: We were already manufacturing our core USA Bidet products and were receiving inquiries from our customers for features which addressed their own health needs. Not exactly a practical approach. This needed to be focused and economically feasible. In this case, we had a Perijett customer who was suffering from some sort of neurodegenerative process. He was ultimately confined to a wheelchair that limited his ability to maintain good personal hygiene. He realized the advantage of a bidet but had limited access to the toilet and required timely assistance from friends and family. When that service wasn’t always available, it would become impossible for the customer to address his hygiene concerns.
Unfortunately, at this point even an adjustable pressure bidet no longer filled the bill.
The goal became figuring out a mechanism to target delivery of both a gentle soap solution--an OTC Perineal Rinse Product--and water to the ’target area’ while simultaneously reducing the risk of spreading the offending exudate to lowering the risk of bacteria. That eliminated the spritz bath, at least in my mind. Adult diapers were also eliminated, as they only the first step; they don’t take the problem away, they delay dealing with it. Once the problem was recognized, a solution was luckily forthcoming. I had worked in laboratories doing quite a bit of bench chemistry. It became a matter of looking at things from that perspective.
The process to building the prototype was its own adventure. I had become a disillusioned grower of more blueberry bushes than I care to admit to. To water and feed my wards required an irrigation system, which delivered both water and fertilizer to the target plants without irrigating and feeding unwanted things. I hooked up a bidet and went to my irrigation equipment supplier who had become somewhat amused at my growing endeavors, but always willing to steer me back onto the right path. We had become friends and when I walked into the shop, there was the rolling of the eyeballs. I explained what I wanted and they were able to pull things from the shelf which should accomplish the mission. I went to a local hardware store and was able to couple the irrigation sized stuff onto the toilet sized stuff. I sent this first unit to my customer and he loved it.
Coates: How difficult was it for you to find a manufacturer to make your product?
Lindheimer: Different mechanical products require different manufacturing capabilities and capacities. Our Perijett products are class 300 stainless steel and a local business was able to manufacture the product at minimal cost. I was lucky in the sense that the manufacturing facility was a local business that had an opening to take on another item to produce. I went there with my prototype and was able to convince them to help me test and perfect it on the property. I was actually able to test the Perijett device in their bathroom to make sure it worked properly, and make the necessary changes onsite versus shipping overseas for them to make the modifications to the product. I simply did not want the inconvenience of shipping the product overseas because I knew that it would eliminate the risk of losing the product during shipment. As an inventor, saving money wherever possible without sacrificing quality of the product or materials is most important. I am forever grateful to that business for assisting me in that way.
Coates: What was your motivation behind this invention?
Lindheimer: Motivations are personal. In this case there was an existing USA Bidet customer who came to me asking for help because he needed a bidet with more functionality. He had purchased several bidets over the last 20 years which were installed whenever he relocated. I had personally spoken with him and found his conversation engaging. Throughout the years, I’ve heard pretty interesting things about the bidet industry. I never met him face-to-face. Once he had the prototype, he had it installed as he was no longer able to do so himself. Installation is geared to the average homeowner (ME!) but there are some things one is no longer able to do.
The customer actually encouraged me to bring my enhancement to market. It was unique and its use was not simply limited to the people who suffer from limited muscular motion, but could be used to make routine elder care worry-free, along with providing perineal comfort to anyone of any age. With this understanding, the financial benefits associated with this product became evident.
Coates: What motivated you to get intellectual property protection for your product?
Lindheimer: I highly recommend the use of a patent attorney to help in the process. My attorney successfully prosecuted this with the USPTO and kept me in the loop the entire time. We underwent several reviews and his encouragement kept me from throwing in the towel. An attorney is definitely necessary. Period.
Coates: What was your filing experience like with the USPTO as well as some life lessons learned in your journey that you would like to share with a young inventor or entrepreneur?
Lindheimer: Overall, the experience taught me that my "good idea" is not always seen as such by others. In my case, it was necessary to take this idea and carry it to the point of feasibility. At this point the decision had to be made as to how far the refinements were to go. Do not over-think! You can nit-pick yourself into a corner while working to perfection.
Now is the time for a patent attorney. Shop around and ask people. I also understand that there are even pro bono attorneys out there. Be ready to share the rewards with those willing to take the upfront risks on your behalf. This will also be a personal interaction and the further one goes down this road the more personal it may become. Not so different than a marriage with all of those possible outcomes. For example, I recently attended an inventor and entrepreneur meeting at the suggestion of the North Carolina Small Business Program. This is a university backed system and the resources are available to all. It didn’t cost anything. Attendees included inventors, businesspeople, patent office representatives, politicians, and attorneys. My eyes were opened to a formerly unknown opportunity offered by different states to small businesses. Your tax dollars pay for these things. Do not let them go by the wayside.