Monday, 13 August 2007

Steve Ascough - Leeds Inventors Group 20/6/07

Inventing in the real world: A reality check” Steve Ascough of Smart Innovation at the inventors group June 07
Steve, a member of the inventors group himself, shared his experiences of successfully getting a product to market and protecting it.

Steve has been in the vehicle crash repair business for many years. His own invention is the Crog® a very compact device which fits any car wheel. It enables recovery vehicles to collect any car whose wheels have been stolen without having to worry about wheel types, saving a great deal of time and money. (“to give someone a crog” is an old Yorkshire expression meaning to give someone a lift)

Steve pointed out that there must be a logical process to inventing and it’s very important for the inventor to take as much advice as is possible. There’s no-one worse than the inventor for seeing things through rose-tinted spectacles. Most inventions fail and one statistic is that only around 1 in 1400 inventions become world-beaters. A reality check is needed.

A patent search at an early stage is vital
(Further information on how to go about this can be obtained from Business & Patent Info Services) – this can reveal threats and competitors which the inventor was previously unaware of. Assuming that the searching goes well careful decisions need to be made with regard to protection. Patenting, particularly on an international basis, is expensive. Steve had to decide whether it was worth patenting his product everywhere. He had to consider the risk of rip-offs and whether the likely loss of income from this would be more than the patent costs.

Making sure that there is a market for a new product is vital for any inventor – as Steve said, just because you can patent your product doesn’t guarantee there’ll be a market for it. It’s important to do your homework – don’t just ask your family and friends what they think. Does the product solve a problem? Is it a significant problem? Can it be cost-effective? Is there a market? Is that market big enough? Is the market a niche market or mass market? If this product existed, would you buy it? How much would you be willing to pay? It’s vital that an inventor can answer these questions. In Steve’s words, “if you haven’t got customers, you haven’t got a successful product.”

Costs have to be carefully monitored. Even if production costs are low, anyone who distributes your product will want their margin, and therefore the cost goes up. This must be taken into account – what costs can the market stand? Is it still viable? Overheads such as rent, fuel bills, insurance need to be accounted for – they are all “outgoings” before you start making a profit. Steve found himself about £95,000 out of pocket in the first three years – this was not unexpected but it is quite daunting and needs to be foreseen. His advice was to try to maintain your existing income while you’re developing your product otherwise you could face financial difficulties.

He began by selling his product himself but only sold two dozen sets in the first six months. He realised that he needed help. People don’t come to you – you have to publicise the product. He now has a distributor and two salesmen. Steve pointed out that other people won’t have your enthusiasm for the product – they’ll want to know what’s in it for them. They will need an incentive to help you.

If you intend to approach a funding organisation you’ll need to ask for an amount based on facts & actual quotes. You need to work out how many you need to sell to break even and then make a profit. Don’t approach anyone for funding until you have answers to these questions.

Steve, who set up his company Smart Innovation Ltd to market and sell the Crog hopes his experiences can help other would-be inventors."
Smart Innovation Ltd., email

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Rowena Mead - Leeds Inventors Group 18/7/07

Rowena invented her completely malleable children’s toothbrush after having problems getting her young daughter to clean her teeth. The little girl much preferred chewing the handle, so Rowena came up with the idea of a flexible brush completely covered in bristles.

Having done a search on Google and found nothing similar, she began to think that she may have a good idea worth pursuing. She attended Venturefest in York, a free event for businesses, inventors and entrepreneurs where she met Steve Ascough of Smart Innovation. Having been through the invention process himself and now running his own business, Steve was able to give Rowena useful guidance. He pointed out the advisability of a confidentiality / non-disclosure agreement when talking to companies; and also the importance of carrying out some patent searching.

Rowena carried out an initial search on Espacenet and then came to Business & Patent Information Services for a more detailed search. She then approached Gilholm Harrison, patent attorneys, and filed a patent application and a design registration.

In order to get a bit of publicity for her product, she wrote a press release and sent it round to various newspapers. This resulted in a big article in the York Evening Press. Through a series of questionnaires she was able to get some feedback from the public and it was very encouraging.

Prototyping was difficult – it can be expensive and the number of bristles on the brush meant that it would not be easy to make. Through contacts at the inventors group she was put in touch with PDM International who came up with a 3-D animation to demonstrate the features of the brush to potential partners.

Rowena was aware that she would have to deal with large companies as that is the nature of the toothbrush market. Her research told her that niche products didn’t survive and she was aware that as this was an oral hygiene product clinical trials would be necessary. This could cost £200,000 - therefore she would need the backing of a large company. There are five key players in the market and she had great difficulties getting through to them. The only one whom she felt was accessible was Wisdom, who hold a smaller share of the market. They have been very encouraging and helped her along.

Rowena is hoping that in the not too distant future, her flexible toothbrush will be a common sight in bathrooms round the country.