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Inventors let dollar signs kill the dream

Inventors are a different lot. I first got to know the inventor type when I was working in sales for a custom molder back in the 1980s. One thing I learned early on is that inventors are always long on ideas and short on cash. They would come into the plant, a cardboard box under one arm and a non-disclosure agreement in their hand, wanting to show me the next great thing in plastics. It usually wasn’t.

Clare Goldsberry

September 5, 2012

4 Min Read
Inventors let dollar signs kill the dream

I’ve spoken at inventor groups and had many calls from people who want help getting their plastic part from cocktail napkin to store shelf, and have seen a lot of great, and not so great, ideas. Some have been successful—I’ve actually written about many of the successes—but I can’t say I’ve known any of them who got rich selling their dream to some giant OEM for millions.

That probably includes Scott White, the inventor of the CondiCup, who is now suing Heinz for knocking off his handy condiment holder. As I read the story in PlasticsToday and other news outlets, I saw his mistake. He let greed overcome his good sense: He took his “patent pending” CondiCup to Heinz and showed his hand.

I’m actually surprised that White got into Heinz. Many years ago I wrote an article on the difficulty for inventors in selling their products to big OEMs. A woman had called me about a baby product she’d invented and was trying to sell to Graco, but they’d slammed the door in her face. That got me wondering just how much opportunity there really is for the average individual inventor to make millions selling their “great idea” to a major OEM. What I discovered was that there’s not much.
One major OEM told me that they’d learned their lesson in trying to deal with individual inventors. Once the OEM lets them in the front door and is shown the product, the OEM is open for a lawsuit should they come out with a similar product a few years later. “We might be working on a similar product back in our lab,” this OEM product manager told me. “We could say that it was coincidence, but who would believe us?” So the answer to the problem was to just refuse to look at anything an inventor brought to them.
Of course everyone remembers the story of Robert Kearns, the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper, who spent $10 million and 20 years of his life going after Ford and Chrysler for patent infringement. Ford settled for $10.1 million in 1990 after 12 years in court. Chrysler settled in 1992 for $30 million after 10 years in court.
The good thing that came out of this court case was the “non-obvious contribution of parts,” which basically said that while all of the parts for the intermittent windshield wiper were common, such as limit switches, etc., the combination and use of the parts were unique. So, the two auto OEMs ended up paying Kearns. The movie, Flash of Genius, was an extremely sad one, watching this guy give up everything—including his family—to get his just reward for his invention.
Another mistake that White made (the same one Kearns made) was taking a yet-to-be-patented product into a big company and showing it off. "Patent pending" isn’t good enough. Once you show it, especially to a big company with deep pockets and lots of lawyers, it’s as good as gone if it’s something they want.
Still it’s tempting. Inventors all want the same thing: to sell their invention to a big company that will pay millions for it so they can retire to Fiji and sip Mai Tais for the rest of their lives. The other way is the hard way, i.e. finding funding from relatives and friends to buy a mold, designing the packaging, calling on the big box retailers trying to get shelf space, finding a molder, and marketing and advertising your product, which costs still more money.
So they take the easy way, blinded by the dollar signs, and end up either giving up their dream or fighting in court for decades.
When President Obama signed the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act into law on Sept. 16 of last year, the primary change was from “first to invent” to “first to file.” It was hoped that it would make it easier and faster for inventors to get their products to market. Currently, it can take anywhere from three to five years, as White and most other inventors can tell you. It was expected that the new law would streamline the process and the huge backlog in the U.S.  Patent Office could be tackled.
It’s that backlog and the long time between filing and actually getting a patent that makes inventors antsy to start selling their products. And that’s how a not-yet-patented—only patent pending—item gets into someone else’s hands.
Short of winning the lottery, there’s no easy way to make a million bucks. White may make his millions in a settlement with Heinz if he’s lucky. But I wouldn’t bet on it. I’ll guarantee you that Heinz has way more money and lawyers than White. And they’re selling their product and making money while White is spending his on lawyers and hope.

Clare Goldsberry is a long-time writer for PlasticsToday.com and the author of “So, You Think You’ve Got a Great Idea!” a book to help inventors navigate the plastics industry to get their product manufactured.

About the Author(s)

Clare Goldsberry

Until she retired in September 2021, Clare Goldsberry reported on the plastics industry for more than 30 years. In addition to the 10,000+ articles she has written, by her own estimation, she is the author of several books, including The Business of Injection Molding: How to succeed as a custom molder and Purchasing Injection Molds: A buyers guide. Goldsberry is a member of the Plastics Pioneers Association. She reflected on her long career in "Time to Say Good-Bye."

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