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 Monday, September 21 2020 @ 06:30 pm UTC

The pitfalls and payoffs of inventive thinking

Florida Real EstateLike most inventors with busy minds, Titusville resident Walter Brim anxiously is waiting for one of his ideas to pay off.

There was his shield contraption to guard against youngsters' being burned by hot stoves. And there was the umbrellalike device that attached to lawn mowers to prevent the operator from getting sunburn. Then there was the elongated automobile headlight that wrapped around the front of a vehicle like a pair of sleek, glowing sunglasses.

Now, after a few years of nearly hitting it big and seeing others develop his ideas -- at least according to him -- the 42-year-old Brim believes he might be onto an invention that could catapult him toward his goal of achieving the success of his hero, George Washington Carver, the father of numerous agricultural applications and often called the "peanut wizard."

Brim calls his latest invention the "spray fire hose" -- a built-to-specification attachment that would fit to a water supply and saturate the immediate area with water or other flame retardant to halt a progressing fire.

But as Brim and many other inventors have discovered, inventing the next big thing means negotiating a maze replete with failures, legal expenses, frustrations, disappointments and, often, very little widespread success.

The odds might be better of winning the Florida Lottery than they are in earning riches and renown for an invention.

"It's not an easy task," Brim said.

The legal issues can be so complex and frustrating that even Alexander Graham Bell might have been content with two paper cups and a string.

Eric Neitzke, who runs Palm Bay-based Enpat Inc., a law firm specializing in patent law, said filing patents can be a waste of time.

"There's a lot of good reasons not to file patents," said Neitzke, a former patent lawyer for Harris Corp. who started his own firm a decade ago. "Some people get them for ego. The real question people should ask themselves, in a hardheaded way, is it worth the time and effort it took to get it?"

Going through a patent attorney typically costs anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000, he said.

Neitzke said his firm reviews hundreds of patent applications annually, and in nine years the company has signed on with only five of them.

"An awful lot of people come up with inventions that may even sell, but they sell in modest quantities," Neitzke said. "Patent protection is not something you can predict accurately at the beginning."

One patent Neitzke's company purchased involved two brothers -- one a casino manager, the other an engineer -- who developed the idea of putting radio-frequency transponders in poker chips. When the chips are put on a blackjack, poker or roulette table, casino operators can keep track of players' betting habits.

"These chips now are used everywhere," Neitzke said. "But the idea of using them in the casino was covered by these guys' patents. If someone wants to do that, they have to pay royalties to us."

Birth of a PUP

James Newell, a local real estate agent, has one word for the patent process: aggravation.

He and partner Jean Newell (no relation) started selling their invention, the personal utility pouch, or PUP, in December.

They went through nearly four months and about $1,000 of patent work to get a provisional patent. For more money and time, they could get to full patent-applied status and then a full patent.

The money they have spent so far is actually much less because they have done it themselves, eschewing the use of a patent attorney, whose prices could be "all over the ballpark," James Newell said.

"We are doing this to protect our idea and capitalize if someone tries to steal it," he said.

One of the first things the Newells had to do to sell their many-zippered minipack was say what it wasn't -- as in it wasn't a fanny pack, which many at first believed.

They are quick to point out that a fanny pack is not as slim as their design and has fewer pockets on the outside, so "everything doesn't fall to the bottom," said Jean Newell, also a real estate agent.

She came up with the idea after fumbling constantly for her keys, papers, glasses and cellular phone and eventually realizing two hands simply weren't enough.

So far, they have sold about 14,000 PUPs at $19.95 each.

The 'Little Buddy'

Port St. John resident Mark Donche estimated he spent nearly $9,000 and several years to get a utility patent for his "Little Buddy" invention, which has the slogan "the one-hand party plate."

The Little Buddy is a plastic plate with compartments on the top for food and drink, and protrusions on the bottom to place a hand.

Donche said he came up with the idea nearly a decade ago after watching a relative in a buffet line juggle a full plate of food and can of soda, only to drop everything.

Donche's product costs $3.99, and he sold about 400 in the past year.

"I decided to patent it because I was showing it around to people," and was worried someone might try to steal his idea and patent it themselves, he said.

"People told me to patent it and make a million dollars," he said. "You need to have some legal protection nowadays."

Unlike the Newells, Donche said he worked with a patent attorney.

Fighting fires

Brim and wife navigate the patent world by themselves now. Beside the "spray fire hose," he also holds a patent on an automatic retractable truck liner.

Brim, a former McDonnell Douglas project coordinator, said he is talking with a Canadian company about licensing the "spray fire hose," and he is continuously going to fire departments edging for a chance to have his contraption tested.

Last week's wildfires, he said, point to the need for such a device.

"This shows you how you could contain those fires," Brim said. "There has got to be a better way to help reduce brush fires."

Containing wildfires first caught his attention six years ago. That's when a series of wildfires in drought-striken Central Florida destroyed dozens of homes, as well as acres of trees and other vegetation.

In Titusville, where he lives and operates W.B. Research & Development Corp., Brim thought about a solution, and went to work in his garage/workshop on a prototype of the "spray fire hose."

He and his wife, Genise, began researching the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Web site to see if anyone else had developed a similar product.

Brim located a manufacturer in the Orlando area who took a reinforced polyester material, added the sprayer attachments -- the "spray fire hose" resembles a large, movable irrigation system -- and tested it for durability.

That completed, Brim searched the Internet for companies that manufacture fire hoses.

In 2001, that led him to Portland, Ore., with a company that distributed fire hoses, and then to a Coaticook, Quebec-based company called Niedner.

All the research, patent filing fees, drawings, materials for the spray fire hose and flights to Oregon and Canada have been on Brim's dime.

Brim still gets wrankled when recalling the $7,000 he said he spent to get a patent on his lawn mower-umbrella shade. He secured a meeting with a certain large retailer, was told "thanks, but no thanks," and says he later saw the retailer selling a similar product.

Brim is not discouraged, though. He has many ideas -- some good, some seemingly a little far-fetched.

"You've got to believe in an idea," he said. "And no idea is a bad idea."

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