At 10 a.m. on the third Saturday of every month, Oak Ridge's Commerce Park becomes a hub of intestinal and intellectual fortitude, a locus of pioneering pith and pluck. For it's on those weekends that the industrial park plays host to the Tennessee Inventors Association, a group whose membership includes would-be Edisons and intrepid technological pathfinders from all across the state.
On this particular Saturday, guest speaker and small business counselor David Beall is holding forth on the vagaries of entrepreneurial endeavor, expounding on the fickle alchemy that transforms inventions into sellable commodities. In short, he's doing his damnedest to scare this assemblage of backroom tinkersmiths, ivory tower eggheads, and corporate laboratory captives into checking the odds before betting the farm.
The prospects for most new product ideas are "slim and none," Beall warns, "and Slim just left town." An ex-military man and former Boeing flight tester, he doesn't mince any words when he tells the group that only one of every 100 inventors recoups the cost of his patent.
"When you run your own show, the last check you write is your own," he says. "Sometimes, you don't write that last check."
But scare tactics notwithstanding, they're still here, undaunted, some 30 TIA members holed up in a stuffy conference room on an unseasonably warm October morn. And it may be with good reason that they've come; over the last 14 years, TIA has counted among its constituents (and its guest speakers) several inventors who beat the odds, including a computer touch screen pioneer, a husband and wife team who crafted a special toilet seat for tiny tushes ("Little Bottoms"), and a Texas Instruments engineer who helped design the company's "Speak 'n' Spell" learning toy.
And according to TIA co-founder Martin Skinner, East Tennessee continues to be a veritable petri dish of technological creativity, a great place to observe the species (Inventus Fanaticus) in its natural habitat. "Because of the technology that exists here, it is a rather active area for inventions, with lots of small companies generating new ideas."
"Nuts" with Bolts
Mad scientist and forgetful professor stereotypes aside, do inventors share any unifying characteristics? "What they all have in common is that they are all people of considerable persistence," says Skinner, "with the drive to spend hours and hours in the shop looking for solutions."
Skinner adds, somewhat enigmatically, that "there's one other trait they all share, but I can never quite put my finger on what it is."
Offers another TIA member, "By and large, inventors tend to be a little bit nuts," perhaps putting his finger on what Skinner is too polite to say.
But in this day of esoteric government research and colossal corporate R&D, the notion of wide-eyed, wire-coifed zealots fashioning heretofore unthinkable contraptions in a smoke-filled basement lair ("Eureka!") seems almost quaint--a daguerrotyped relic from the era of Edison and Bell. And while Skinner says independent creators are still responsible for more new ideas than their big business counterparts, he adds that most of the new products that actually hit the market were first sketched out on the corporate drawing board.
"If you look at the extremes of what constitutes an inventor, you have large companies on one hand, with teams of engineers working to solve a problem or improve on a device already in existence," says Bill Gibson, an Oak Ridge business man with several "touch screen" patents to his credit. "At the other end, you have the lone inventor who comes up with some idea, which after the fact he convinces himself is the greatest thing since sliced bread."
Only about one out of 20,000 lone inventors will shepherd their creation through the patent stage and onto the market, says one local patent attorney. "You're usually talking about people with very little marketing savvy," he says. "They're more enamored with the cleverness of the concept than whether it's viable."
Enamored of the concept, and perhaps immune to certain financial realities: "You have to have some money in order to move your idea down the road." says TIA president John Dabbs. "Your funds, your family's funds, and your friends' funds--that's where you start in this game."
The Galkie Company--Kitty Concepts
Few people are more keenly aware of the daunting economics of the inventor's milieu than TIA member John Galkiewicz. Upon losing his job as a corporate pilot, the Harrogate resident sought out new horizons in 1983, staking his livelihood on a toy he made for a family pet.
His invention--the Kitty Tease--represents neither a conceptual revolution nor a technological marvel. It's a fiberglass rod with a wooden handle that dangles a dacron string with a scrap of denim bait tied on the end--much like a fishing pole, sans worms and reel. "It's one of those things you look at and say, 'I should have thought of that years ago,'" Galkiewicz laughs.
The initial response to Galkiewicz's "Tease" was heartening; after a relatively modest materials investment, he sold 400 toys at a cat show in Houston, 350 in Birmingham, and more than 500 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Soon he was wholesaling Kitty Tease to pet store owners and pitching directly to cat enthusiasts via mail order ads in Cat Fancy Magazine.
But although the Galkie Company has pushed enough products over the last 13 years to justify construction of a two story workshop/office in back of Galkiewicz's home, the inventor says the enterprise has often been an exercise in frustration, a lesson in the law of diminishing returns.
"There's a big company putting out a copycat product right now, and it's really cutting into the business," says Galkiewicz. "I've got more than $20,000 in domestic and overseas patents, and all it gives me is a license to sue."
Galkiewicz has rolled with the punches, taking the basic materials from the Kitty Tease and evolving two other products--a joggers' foil he calls the "K-9 Swat Rod" (for discouraging overzealous dogs), and a special blackboard pointer that was used by Judge Lance Ito in the O.J. Simpson trial.
"The patent office says it's too obvious and can't be patented," he says peevishly, explaining in minute detail why the lightweight fiberglass body, the almost shadow-free tapered point, and the black and fluorescent yellow-on-red color schemes set his winsome wands apart from other, more pedestrian pointing sticks.
So why does Galkiewicz persevere, suffering the slings and arrows of persnickety patent officials, not to mention the patent-rending shark attacks of carnivorous corporate lawyers?
"Once you start inventing things, you can't stop," he says, holding up a Dr. Seuss-like implement used to stretch and cut dacron lines for the Kitty Tease. It's only one of several homemade gizmos Galkiewicz has concocted to run his one-man assembly line more efficiently, many of which are even more fascinating than the products they help forge.
"It's natural for me to try to defeat problems," he says. "If there's an easier or better way to do something, I'm going to figure it out."
Preston Leingang's Very Special Operations
In some ways, however, Galkiewicz's modest success flouts the rules of product innovation. "It's important to invent something in an area where you have some expertise," says Skinner. "That way you know where it fits into the market, and you already have some business contacts."
It's a lesson Maryville's Preston Leingang learned well. A former communications specialist for the US Army, Leingang marshalled all the resources and know-how accumulated during his 20-odd years of military experience and founded Turtle Mountain Communications Inc., a firm that designs hi-tech information systems for covert police and government operations.
Today, Leingang's client base includes many of the same players he served during his military career--U.S. Army Special Operations, the Joint Special Operations Command, even Israel and the United Arab Emirates. And his employees, from his crack team of former armed forces technicians to his son and production manager Corky, are fellow veterans, almost to a man.
"I won't have an engineer on my crew. We've got some of the best Army and Navy techs you can find," Leingang huffs. Graying and 50-ish, he's thick-set, gruff, mustachioed, and tottering around on short legs that are often lost in the imposing shadow cast by his bear-like upper frame.
If some inventors fashion new products out of whole cloth, Leingang is the inventor as synthesist and facilitator. He and his technicians take standard equipment--Motorola phones, Casio cameras, Samsonite luggage--and create elaborate portable communications systems with self-contained power supplies.
"In my line of work, it's all been invented," Leingang says. "All that's left is enhancing and honing what's already there. I call it follow-along technology. Somebody has an idea, and somebody else comes along and makes it better."
The results of Leingang's hi-tech couplings would do Ian Fleming proud. Surrounded by stacks of black attaches in Turtle Mountain's workshop/storeroom, he shows off a briefcase equipped with a phone, a computer link, a fax unit, and a little black control box designed in-house. The bearer can engage in confidential communications from almost any location, says Leingang, noting that his particular systems are carried by the president, as well as more than 400 other statesmen across Europe and the US.
For a client who wanted to tote his cloak-and-dagger workstation into remote parts of Bosnia, Leingang and company outfitted a backpack with a printer, a scanner, a camera, and a laptop computer--all powered by a satellite receptor in the top of the pack.
"You'd be surprised at the ideas you can get off Mission Impossible reruns and Bond movies," Leingang chortles. "All those things Q used to show James--we can do them now."
Unlike most product innovators, Leingang isn't worried about obtaining patents for any of his systems, nor even for any of the gadgets he and his men have engineered while cobbling all those do-it-yourself spy-packs and portable surveillance kits together.
He believes the strength of his company lies first with the ingenious simplicity of its creations--he's got systems strung together with Radio Shack components that larger companies told him couldn't be done--and with the dogged sense of pragmatism that marks his approach.
"This is a patentable item," he says, holding up an interconnected series of wires, circuits, and plugs--a device that allows two-way radios to receive computer input. "But most of them are so simple you could look at them, change one circuit, and get around the patent.
"Remember, I'm from North Dakota," he adds, thumping a heavy leather boot with a big finger. "We use 'cowboy logic' for everything; there's a simple solution to any problem."
Omniview's Singular Vision
If you accept that the spectrum of inventors begins with quixotic basement daydreamers and ends with tediously goal-oriented corporate R&D, then Lee Martin probably falls somewhere near the middle of the continuum. When the ORNL expatriate and his then-partner Paul Satterlee founded Telerobotics in 1986, they had a plan of action, but lacked a clear-cut goal.
What began as an attempt to integrate robots and imaging systems for work in remote environments became something else entirely when Martin and two other scientists patented the PhotoBubble. And as the 'Bubble's commercial potential became increasingly evident, the company phased out its forays into robotics and changed its name to Omniview.
It's impossible to appreciate a PhotoBubble without seeing it in person, but imagine standing in the geometric center of a room and taking a picture with a wide-angle fish-eye lens, then making a 180-degree turn and snapping a second shot. Individually, the two photos provide warped hemispherical images--distended in the center, curved and thin on the perimeter. Together, they comprise a complete view of the room, albeit fractal and distorted.
But the PhotoBubble system combines the images and allows them to be viewed on a computer screen as a unified, undistorted whole--as if the viewer were operating a remote control surveillance camera located in the middle of the room. (If you're curious, check out http://www.omniview.com/ for an on-line demonstration.)
"We think it's kind of cool," Martin says with a broad, boyish grin. "It's cyber-photography. We're taking something crooked and straightening it out on computer. You control where you want your eye to travel on the screen, and everything will keep its perspective. You can even look close-up at any part of the room."
Martin's evolution from scientific explorer to inventor to entrepreneur and CEO has been, for the most part, a happy one; Omniview now has almost 30 employees (up from 2 in '86) and a sizable office space off Oak Ridge Highway (a big step up from Martin's basement.) PhotoBubbles are currently used on the worldwide web to advertise cars and apartments, and Omniview recently released the first in a series of educational CD-ROMs, a tour of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house, Fallingwater.
A scientist by trade, with negligible prior business experience, Martin says he could have licensed the PhotoBubble to a larger company, thereby side-stepping all of the demoralizing pratfalls of marketing and production. "I might not have so many of these gray hairs," says the 40-year-old inventor, running his fingers through a ream of silvery locks. "I have a whole new appreciation for marketing now."
But just as Martin's prematurely graying hair belies the countenance of a younger man, so his genial manner and serene smile affably veil the steel and resolution that lie at his core. Inventors are in many respects like fathers, and this proud papa has an abiding faith in the strength and promise of his child.
"We're going in with the attitude that we've got something pretty special," he says. "It's more risk and more responsibility this way, but with the right partnerships, I think this will go a long way."
Fi-Shock's Flying Discs--Glowing Reviews
As a product development specialist for Fi-Shock Inc., Brett Burdick is cushioned from many of the wallet-skewering thrusts and ego-deflating hammer-blows that self-employed innovators such as Martin and Galkiewicz often endure. Once an avionics engineer for Honeywell in Phoenix, Arizona, Burdick was hired by Fi-Shock in early '95 to help the rapidly growing Knoxville company explore new commercial horizons beyond its successful line of electric fences.
Burdick's UF-Glo, a throwing disc (not to say Frisbee) festooned with tiny lights, represents the biggest product roll-out in the company's 26-year history. And while Fi-Shock's vast production rooms spit out nearly 1,500 discs per day, company suits are negotiating product promotions with the likes of ESPN, Dennis Rodman, and MTV.
But even with the considerable financial resources of a large company behind him, Burdick had difficulty finding a foothold in the rugged terrain of commercial R&D. "This was all brand new to me," he says. "It's one thing to design a product and another to design one you can feasibly manufacture."
Fi-Shock CEO Tom Boyd first conceived the UF-Glo when an acquaintance showed him a crude product model--a Frisbee soldered with Christmas lights--in early '96. Boyd was reportedly smitten by the idea and handed it off to his brand new engineer.
Burdick's first step was to conduct a patent search at the UT law library. He discovered several patents on what were essentially lighted Frisbees, but most of them had expired, and none of the discs had proven either commercially or aerodynamically feasible. "My neighbor even had one," he says. "Poor quality, and it didn't fly well."
Convinced he could make a better mousetrap (or at least a brighter flying disc), Burdick canvassed other companies in search of the cheapest component parts, took a crash course in the finer points of making plastic molds, and learned to use the three-dimensional-image software that eventually laid out the first UF-Glo prototype. "There were lots of changes and lots of homework before we ever hit the manufacturing stage."
Unlike its predecessors, Burdick's model is buoyant (the light-emitting diodes that line its outer edge are each smaller than a pea), aerodynamic (the battery is housed in a rectangular case in the center of the disc's underside), and, retailing at about $10 per disc, reasonably cheap.
"The feedback has been terrific," Burdick enthuses. "At trade shows, the standard response has been 'That's cool!'"
Having arrived at his current station (as essentially an in-house inventor) by a serendipitous career turn, Burdick may not yet approach his labors with the same paternal ardor as those inventors who came by their lot more organically. But he's getting there.
An art enthusiast in high school and college, Burdick describes his job as "the perfect combination of art and engineering." And even though his first patent at Fi-Shock--on a cooler with a built-in insulated drink dispenser--fell by the wayside when manufacturing proved too costly, his enthusiasm for the project hasn't waned.
"There's nothing like this one at all," he gushes. "You always have people telling you 'That's not a good concept.' They think it's kind of silly. Above all else, you have to be committed to your idea."
Remotec: Lots of 'bots
In the world of inventors and inventions, Knoxville patent attorney Bob Pitts believes even solo R&D specialists such as Burdick may be more the exception than the rule. Pitts estimates that 70 percent of his clients are corporate entities, most of them with teams of scientists who work simply to refine existing products. It's a phenomenon that blurs the lines between invention and modification, between conceptualist and technician, between trouble-shooter and pioneer.
"Most inventions are modifications of things that have gone before, as opposed to completely new ideas," Pitts says. "We're talking about incremental changes rather than brand new concepts."
Oak Ridge's Remotec offers a case in point. Founded in 1980 by a group of ORNL engineers, the company (now a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman) purchased the ANDROS robotic line from its Belgian creators in 1986. What it got was a blueprint and an embryonic prototype. What the company has now is seven different remote control robots, each with a variety of hi-tech accessories and a full family of robotic equipment.
"The original electronics systems had to be completely redesigned," says business development manager Mark Tcherneschoff. "We made them easier to use, more durable, stronger, and generally increased their capabilities."
Remotec's 'bots all fit the same basic mold; rectangular bodies set on either wheels or treads, and equipped with a retractable mechanical arm and a camera (so its distant human operator can "see.") But like new cars, each one comes with its own unique set of standard and optional features. The ANDROS 6x6, for instance, one of the larger models at roughly the size of a lawn tractor, has an accessory plate that will operate all manner of tools and sensors, including drills, saws, or x-ray equipment.
A smaller model, the ANDROS Mark VI, has retractable rotors on either end of its wheel base, allowing it to shrink to sub-compact size for increased zip and maneuverability, or extend its tread and ascend a flight of stairs. Tcherneschoff demonstrates both functions, and while the Mark VI is a bit cumbersome on the Remotec stairwell, painstakingly thunking and clunking up each step like a vacuum cleaner being dragged by a child, the tasks it will ultimately perform won't require much grace. And with its rotors raised and its wheels on level ground, it darts, stops, and turns with startling agility, a Kevlar canine frolicking at its master's feet.
Remotec's clanking automatons have been purchased by more than 400 police agencies and nuclear facilities across the world; besides handling hazardous waste, ANDROS machines are used for ordinance disposal, surveillance, and hostage interface. The company holds several patents on its modifications, and its office walls are adorned with a host of awards from police and military organizations recognizing it as an industry leader.
But ask Tcherneschoff which of Remotec's 100 or so employees is most responsible for cutting these bold swaths through the field of robotics, and you'll get a decidedly nonspecific answer.
"There are individual names on each of our patents, but they're really attributable to the company," he says. "Everything we do is really a team effort."
Which is all well and good, because Remotec's robots are hardly the sterile progeny of homogenous corporate paternalism; freakish, fascinating, and futuristic, they're loads of fun to play with and a flat-out hoot to watch.
Nonetheless, the notion of the lone inventor, the basement pioneer, the Frankensteinian eccentric (all blood-shot eyes and frazzled hair) acting out his God complex on a makeshift laboratory stage, holds a certain romance that seems lost in the translation to collectivist creativity. Have marketing monoliths finally robbed the lone inventor of his vision and his voice? Is boardroom groupthink really all that's left of the legacy of Marconi, Franklin, and Bell?
Probably not, says Pitts, because although technological parameters may undulate and change, the need for maverick thinkers and seat-of-the-pants innovators will never disappear. "There are still pioneer patents that come along and completely change the way we do business or the way we manufacture," he says. "There will always be those people who come along, look at a problem, and take a whole new approach."