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Optimism and obsession are on display at a support group for Vermont inventors

By day, David Albright maintains the rest areas on I-89 for the state of Vermont. But when the reserved 59-year-old welder goes home to Jeffersonville, he retreats to a 28-by-28-foot workshop to practice his true vocation.

Albright is an inventor. Last month, he received his first patent, for a wood splitter attachment - in patent-speak, "multiple wood splitting wedges on a rotating member."

If this year follows recent trends, Albright's patent will be one of more than 400 awarded to Vermont inventors in 2006. That might not sound like many, but given the small population, it means the state generates more patents per capita than almost any other. Even with corporations like IBM skewing those numbers, Vermont still claims a sizable population of innovators.

Some of them are famous - think John Deere, or Jake Burton Carpenter. But for every household name, hundreds, such as Albright, are toiling in obscurity, seeking patents for products they hope will bring them fame and fortune. Or at least enough income to offset the considerable sums they spend building prototypes and paying $300-an-hour patent lawyers.

Though Albright works alone, he's not as solitary as he might seem. Once a month, he drives to a meeting of InventVermont, a 3-year-old nonprofit that functions as a support group for part-time tinkerers.

Vermont inventors have a number of resources at their disposal. The state funds several small-business development centers that dispense business planning advice, and the University of Vermont recently opened the Center for Emerging Technologies, a business incubator designed to help launch technology-based enterprises.

InventVermont offers institutional support, too - for $20 in yearly dues, its 40 members can attend presentations on marketing strategies, and promote their products through the group's website, www.inventvermont. com. They can also glean tips on how to access state and federal resources, and even request confidential meetings with fellow inventors to review designs for which they haven't yet sought a patent.

The group connected Albright with President Tom Ference, an inventor and patent agent, who helped him through the complicated patenting process. At $75 an hour, Albright notes, that help came much cheaper than a lawyer.

But perhaps InventVermont's most important function, members say, is connecting inventors with others of their ilk: fellow Vermonters who share the conviction that they, too, have a brilliant idea waiting to be recognized by the wider world. Members learn, in short, that they're not alone. This solidarity helps them keep plugging away, waiting for their big break.

The spirit of camaraderie is almost palpable at the group's third annual meeting, October 12, at Vermont College in Montpelier. Albright is there, one of seven inventors scheduled to be interviewed before the audience by fellow inventor Danielle O'Hallisay. The diverse array of products on display includes a maple syrup flue pan washer and a cart-mounted aquatic vegetation harvester.

When his turn comes, Albright tells the audience that hydraulic wood splitters aren't new; he manufactured and sold hundreds of the labor-saving devices in the 1980s. But after years of pondering the design, he conceived of a new twist. Literally.

Albright devised a propeller-like head that attaches to the business end of a hydraulic wood splitter. Each of the three propeller "blades" consists of a different wood splitting wedge, capable of splitting a log into three, four or six pieces.

Here's how it works: The user drops a log into the berth between the wedges and the hydraulic cylinder, then spins the wedge wheel to select the desired setting, locks it in place, and pushes a button. The cylinder drives the log between the blades of the chosen wedge until the wood breaks into the desired number of pieces.

"I can split three cords an hour with it," Albright boasts. He shows a video clip demonstrating his invention. The audience oohs and aahs when his machine splits a log into six pieces as effortlessly as if the wood were Play-Dough. The inventor proudly notes that an international wood-splitter manufacturer has expressed interest in the design.

But this development was a long time coming. When Albright talks about his difficulty navigating the patent process, the years he waited for approval and the thousands of dollars he has spent in pursuit of his goal, members of the audience knowingly nod their heads.

He was so frustrated that "I almost started drinking again before the end," he says. That draws a few mirthless chuckles. Some in the audience have no doubt been there before.

*********

If this sounds reminiscent of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, that's because it is. Or so says InventVermont member Leonard Duffy. The bearded, bespectacled 65-year-old architect from Hinesburg likens the group's meetings, which he regularly attends, to those organized by AA. The only difference, he says, is that instead of confessing they're alcoholics, members confess to being inventors.

Is he suggesting that the desire to invent something is like a disease? Or is he saying he enjoys the fellowship of others who are similarly afflicted? A little of both, it seems.

Duffy has presented his inventions before the group in the past; he's one of InventVermont's most often-cited success stories. Last year, more than 2000 units of a wooden cookbook holder he invented sold on the home shopping channel QVC. And his fastening technology won the Grand Prize in the 2004 "Create the Future" Design Contest, sponsored by Emhart Teknologies and NASA Tech Briefs magazine.

During an interview in his office a few days before the meeting, the owlish grandfather says he attends the gatherings to see his inventor friends and to talk shop. But he freely admits to being obsessed.

"Everybody has ideas sometimes," he suggests. "'Wouldn't it be great if . . .' But the making-something-of-it part requires a kind of obsession," he explains. "You have to be obsessive to a certain degree to stick with trying to solve the problem after you define it."

To illustrate his point, he removes a pencil from his breast pocket. It's not enough to have the idea that you ought to be able to use it to write. You also have to figure out how to produce and design it. How do you get the graphite in there? What do you use to erase the writing? How do you attach the eraser on top? Why is the pencil octagonal?

Inventing, Duffy says with a wry smile, "is not a real mentally stable thing to do." It's hard to tell to if he's joking.

Consider his experience. Duffy has been tinkering since he was a kid growing up on a horse-powered farm in New Jersey. He studied architecture at Pennsylvania State University, and in 1972 moved to Hinesburg to establish an architecture firm. After downsizing the company during the recession of the 1990s, he began to focus on other pursuits, including oil painting - two of his canvasses hang in the stairwell leading up to his office - and inventing.

During the mid-1990s, Duffy attended a state-sponsored workshop on taking ideas to the marketplace. It inspired him. When the zipper on his one of his bags broke during a business trip to Washington, D.C., in 1996, he remembers thinking, "Gee, there must be a better way to do that."

On the plane, Duffy designed a pattern consisting of small flower-like islands that, when pressed to another strip of similar islands, would stick, but could be peeled away just as easily. "It's an interlocking device similar to Velcro," he explains. "But when you pull it, it's much stronger and more durable than Velcro." Duffy dubbed the stuff "Qwik Grip."

While in D.C., he stopped by the U.S. Patent Office to see if anyone had already claimed his idea. Today you can complete such searches online, but 10 years ago, Duffy had to physically maneuver through the narrow aisles of shelves to find the correct section of the patent collection that covered his designs.

"There are acres of shelves with folders on them," he marvels. "It's like this funky old grandmother's attic."

That chaotic arrangement could also describe the patent process itself. Applicants must first determine how to classify their invention. They must categorize it according to the type of device or process, and the method by which it works. Duffy explains that the ordering system can seem illogical at times - his fastening system, for example, might belong to the same category as a product from the 1800s that uses sliding, interlocking wooden plates.

After settling on a category or categories, an applicant must prove the invention is both novel and unobvious. Duffy clarifies the definition: "If a theoretical person who is knowledgeable in the field can come up with this idea using two things in the field that have never been combined before, that would be considered obvious."

Navigating this process correctly is critical, both in order to gain approval and to ensure that the patent is secure enough to keep someone else from slightly modifying the idea and stealing it - hence the willingness to hire pricey attorneys.

Once Duffy ascertained that no one had already claimed his fastener idea, he began applying for a patent himself. Theoretical- ly, he says, such applications are supposed to be processed in 18 months. This one took several years.

But getting the patent is only one part of the process. Once you've come up with a product, the next step is marketing. And that means explaining to other people how they can use it, and why they need it. So far, Duffy has had a hard time selling Qwik Grip.

Five years ago, he was staying at a bed and breakfast where another guest happened to be a representative from 3M. Duffy pitched him the fastening system. The rep liked what he saw, and within a few days, Duffy was on a plane to Minnesota, where he met with a group of 3M marketers and engineers.

It might have been his big breakthrough, but things didn't turn out the way he'd hoped. "This whole room of engineers turned to me and asked, 'How much does it cost, and how do you make it?'" he recalls. Since Duffy hadn't actually tried to produce it yet, he couldn't answer their questions. He went home without a deal.

"That was a learning experience," he says ruefully.

After that encounter, Duffy found a Middlebury company to produce his design. Today his Hinesburg office is littered with test strips of Qwik Grip. Duffy has experimented with using it to replace Velcro straps on things such as tennis shoes and bike helmets, among other things. The application that won the 2004 award was his "Unitary Orthopedic Appliance," which uses the fastener to secure a removable cast.

Duffy thought of it when a relative broke her arm and had to wear a cast that was held together with Velcro. "The straps caught in her hair," he says, "and there was no way to clean them."

The announcement of Duffy's award in NASA Tech Briefs calls the Unitary Orthopedic Appliance "long-lasting, sanitary, comfortable, non-grabbing, non-clogging, low-profile and reusable. It allows bathing without removal, ventilates skin and allows perspiration, eliminates pressure points, and minimizes odor, rash, itching and other complications."

So why is Duffy's prototype gathering dust in his office? Because, like many inventors, he would rather tinker than sell. "I'm sure if I were a better promoter and salesperson, it would have gone somewhere by now," he says with a shrug.

Duffy has had more commercial success with his cookbook holder, which he also conceived a decade ago. One day his wife decided she needed more counter space to lay down her cookbooks, and asked him to expand the kitchen. Instead of filing for a building permit, Duffy rigged a hanging holder out of wire. In 2002, his MBA son Brennan helped him shape the product into something more marketable, a wooden stand with a metal clasp to hold the book, and red ribbons to mark pages. The two Duffys have since expanded into hanging spice racks and laptop racks. They sell them through their website, www.overtheedge products.com.

Duffy has patented the concept of hanging these things from various surfaces, under the term "portable cantilevered support device." His 3-year-old application received approval just this month.

But though Duffy has broken even on that invention, it hasn't made up for the losses he's taken on Qwik Grip. He's lucky his wife is a tenured professor at St. Michael's College, he says. How much have his inventions cost him? Like a problem gambler, he's still in denial about that. "I'm deep in a hole there," he confesses. "I don't want to publish how much I've spent on it."

But he remains convinced he'll eventually hit it big, and with his award and the early encouraging interest from 3M, he has reason to be hopeful. "Sooner or later, something's going to happen on that," Duffy predicts. "Suddenly, it's going to be ubiquitous and everyone's going to need some."

No wonder he needs a support group.

*********

At the end of the inventor presentations at the InventVermont annual meeting, Duffy stops by George DeCell's display table to catch up with the 35-year-old inventor. With his crew cut and goatee, DeCell resembles a younger Billy Joel. Like Duffy, he's convinced that the world is on the verge of embracing his signature product: plastic childproof outlet covers he calls SafetyCaps.

DeCell comes to the meetings because he knows the others here can empathize with him, he says. "They've had the same sleepless nights I have."

Something else DeCell has in common with Duffy: He stumbled into inventing after experiencing a business failure. An accountant by training, DeCell had been working for a captive insurance company in 2001. He and a friend decided to form their own firm. After they convinced a company in New York to hire them and move its captive insurance business to Vermont, DeCell quit his job - on September 10, 2001.

The next day's terrorist attacks forced the company to re-evaluate its plans. DeCell became a stay-at-home dad. During that time, he conceived his first invention, a business-card rack. He claims he came up with the idea to place the rack in stores, and rent display space to business card owners for $5 a month, as a form of advertising.

He ordered the plastic backing and the business card holders from various companies and assembled the racks himself, in the three-story house he built in Fairfax. He had large American flags printed on the backs of the racks, to capitalize on the upwelling of post-9/11 patriotism. He calls his invention, "United Wee Stand." He's still waiting for his patent on that one.

Another tragedy - a near miss, actually - spurred DeCell's creation of SafetyCaps. One day in 2002, his baby daughter got her hands on one of the small plastic outlet covers parents use to keep their kids from sticking their fingers in electrical outlets. She put it in her mouth and began to choke.

DeCell won't say much about the incident; he's still clearly rattled by it. His daughter was fine in the end, but a press release in his SafetyCaps media kit carries describes the event this way: "It was the longest few minutes of his life, while he worked to remove the object from her throat."

DeCell says he spent the next year waging a campaign to convince the government and the public that the caps are dangerous. "My wife calls it my 'angry year,'" he says.

Then he started designing a safer outlet cover. A slightly bigger cap would be more difficult to choke on, he discovered, and if it did get lodged in a kid's throat, small holes on either side, like those on a pacifier, would allow the child to continue breathing.

DeCell found a Vermont company to manufacture his design, bought a bagging machine and 500,000 bags from a game company that moved to Mexico, and started selling his SafetyCaps at www.safetycaps. com. He received his patent on July 4 of this year.

His marketing materials show him sitting with his smiling daughter on his lap, holding the cap aloft in his left hand. "It's exactly the right size," he insists.

So far DeCell has convinced a number of hospitals and hotels to use the caps, and he's received approval from groups like the National Parenting Center, which awarded him its 2006 Seal of Approval. He says Oprah Winfrey has expressed interest in featuring the product on her show. In May, MIT named him one of its "Inventors of the Week."

"Post-It Notes, steam engines, Wite-Out," DeCell says, naming other such honorees. "Safety caps are in there now."

He is absolutely convinced that his product will take off once he's proven to people that the caps now being used are unsafe. Until then, DeCell is helping to pay the bills by working as a real estate agent. He has yet to see a profit from SafetyCaps.

"But I will," he declares enthusiastically, "because I'm winning."

*********

Once DeCell and Duffy have hit the big time, will they still attend InventVermont meetings? Maybe not. Steve Luhr, founder and president of CherryMax sleds, belongs to the organization, but he skipped this year's get-together.

Luhr acknowledges the group helped him start his now 4-year-old company, which produces the widely praised Hammerhead sled. "We found it really helpful to be tied in to a bunch of people doing the dirty work," he says. After meeting some key advisers through the group, though, it was time to move on, Luhr says. He's now networking with venture capitalists and angel investors.

But for every inventor who graduates from the group, another one comes in. Richmond flute-maker John Landell attended his first annual meeting this year. He brought along two of his pricey silver flutes, and a third, which he has patented, made of titanium.

Landell woefully reports that he spent $13,000 to patent the titanium flute, which is lighter and produces a brighter, louder sound than the traditional model. "It has that resonance, so light, so sweet," he says, adding, "I haven't made a dime from it." So why did he pursue his invention? "Well," Landell quips, "I was stupid." Then he laughs and amends his answer. "I'm one of those crazy inventors who believes."

After all, Landell didn't just patent the titanium flute - he patented the idea of making any musical instrument from titanium. "When they want to make a titanium tuba, they're going to see John Landell," he says, dollar signs swimming in his eyes.

Sounds like he's come to the right place.

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About The Author

Cathy Resmer

Cathy Resmer

Bio:
Cathy Resmer is a former staff writer and currently an associate publisher at Seven Days, and is one of the organizers of the Vermont Tech Jam. She's also the Copublisher and Executive Editor of Kids VT, Seven Days' free monthly parenting publication.

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