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VOL. 121 | NO. 26 | Friday, January 27, 2006

Inventors Association Massages Bright Ideas

By Andy Meek

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INSPECTOR GADGET LIVES: Eric Wells, a volunteer for the Mid-South Inventors Association, displays a case he's designed that's interchangeable with computer equipment. -- Photograph By Andy Meek

In the words of the popular song, Eric Wells and Rex Baker get by with a little help from their friends.

By volunteering with the Mid-South Inventors Association, a two-year-old group of inventors and related professionals, the two men also lend a hand to other visionaries who often have little more than the spark of an idea but are unsure how to ignite it.

Through regular meetings and the individual know-how of its members, the fledgling group shows them the way.

Move over, Thomas Edison

"We were formed to help each other get to the next phase of the invention process," said Memphis attorney Deborah Murdock. She's the president of the MIA, whose next meeting is tentatively scheduled for March 21 at the Central Library at 3030 Poplar Ave.

Wells, the group's secretary, said the MIA is looking to boost its profile in Memphis.

New contraptions don't always have to revolutionize entire industries, so the 20-member band of inventors also puts people in contact with local professionals who know about patent, manufacturing, marketing and other useful information.

Many, like Baker, are inventors themselves. Baker, a Germantown resident, has created a plumbing device that's available at Home Depot stores. It's used in unclogging home plumbing systems and catching any overflow.

"It's similar to a coffee filter, and it could fit on any size pipe," Wells said. "We also have a guy with a tracheotomy tube who has a device that helps people talk. He has his own company and has designed products for people with trach tubes, as well as other biotech devices."

Gathering momentum

Murdock said the group, which was started in July 2004, is putting together a rough calendar of events for the rest of the year.

"We are a group of individuals who are in the invention phase, somewhere between having an idea and having a product on the shelf for sale and receiving licensing royalties."
- Deborah Murdoch
attorney and president of the Mid-South Inventors Association

"We are a group of individuals who are in the invention phase, somewhere between having an idea and having a product on the shelf for sale and receiving licensing royalties," she said.

Those phases of the invention process include developing an idea, creating a prototype, securing patents and marketing and licensing a finished product.

"Those are all things that we talk about," Murdock said. "We have speakers come in and talk to us about all these different items, and then we share where we are in the invention phase and issues revolving around where we are."

Such groups are indispensable to creative thinkers who've come up with a sleek design or new device themselves but are stumped about the next step, said Dave Cormier, a board member of the United Inventors Association.

He's also a co-founder of the Innovators' Resource Network, a nonprofit group that works with inventors and is based in Springfield, Mass. On its Web site, the UIA describes itself as the voice of one of the largest "think tanks" in the world.

"I think the value of an inventors' group is that it gives the individual inventor a chance to get out and sort of bounce their ideas off of somebody else," Cormier said. "It lets them get away from being cooped up in the basement tinkering away, not knowing what else is going on out there in the marketplace."

Intellectual smorgasbord

And there's plenty going on. The Memphis inventors group met earlier this month, shortly after the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office - which is part of the Department of Commerce - announced its yearly top 10 list of the private sector companies with the most patents for inventions. The top three companies on the list - IBM, Canon Kabushiki Kaisha and Hewlett-Packard Development Co. LP - received a combined total of 6,566 patents in 2005.

That's a lot of creative activity going on at the corporate level, but individual inventors can still give themselves a leg up. There is one major trade publication for inventors - Inventors' Digest - which was started in 1985 as a black-and-white, eight-page newsletter.

But local groups are crucial to the long-term success of a new idea, Cormier said.

"In many cases, inventors end up spending an awful lot of time and money if they work by themselves," Cormier said. "If they can be part of an inventors group where they have other people who they're talking with who have manufacturing skills and things, just bouncing an idea off somebody else sometimes can open up way more possibilities than trying to do it all yourself."

At the MIA's regular meetings, Wells said expert speakers are sometimes brought in to add another dimension.

"I actually used to belong to one up in Nashville," he said. "It's just a good resource to have, to have someone who can help you. Most inventors, the first thing they say is, 'I've got an idea - where do I go? What do I do?'"

Dispelling the popular idea of a scientist thundering "Eureka!" and churning out a successful invention, the MIA also takes its members through the business side of things. Among the services it offers is help researching the patent process, how to finance a project and getting in touch with potential manufacturers.

"We tell everybody basically how to get any help they need," Wells said.

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