Just being new simply won't do

Unless inventions give business what it wants and make sound commercial sense, their makers are living in cloud-cuckoo-land, writes Alan Somerfield
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The Independent Online
SOMEONE ONCE said that the only good inventors are dead inventors, and perhaps they are right. Our contemporary ideas of inventors and what they do simply do not fit the bill anymore. We need to reinvent their role, for inventors have been doing it backwards for too long.

The conventional inventor can spend a lifetime getting it the wrong way round, developing their own ideas to sell to industry when it would be far more productive to offer a commercial service aimed at providing the answers industry needs - when they need them. The greatest idea is useless unless it's at the right time and in the right place.

I recently visited an exhibition for inventors, and the experience was utterly dispiriting. There they were, ploughing their own specialist furrows, living in hope that someone might approach them and like their idea. Not to put too fine a point on it, the exhibitors looked and sounded like a bunch of amateurs. What a waste of effort! Even if they had come up with a good idea, they would be more than likely to find that industry was not interested, quite simply because the timing was wrong.

Yet the whole ethos of invention in this country has been built on persuading the commercial world that it should adopt inventors' ideas to its needs. In other words, there is very little market savvy deployed in the process. It's made worse by the fact that inventors can seldom see the commercial downside of their ideas. Instead of a partnership between business and invention, we have two sides unaware of each others' real needs. Business needs solutions (but good ones!) and inventors have need of a brief. Perhaps business is as much to blame, as it too can be caught in the invention time warp.

I don't possess a stockpile of ideas, but I can provide solutions, on demand, to other businesses problems: with my firm, Inventive Step, I have built up a business with a licensed turnover in excess of pounds 3m by doing just that. We will only spend time on what industry is paying us for. That creates a very tight, efficient ship. Give us the cash and we will come up with a solution to meet the need, to a deadline. I prefer not to waste my time, or that of my clients, hoping that some idea will emerge which may be suitable for them. People often ask me how inventions happen, and I tell them that it's by sheer application of thought to a precise commercial brief. By definition, an invention is something new and not obvious. New is easy - but if it were obvious it would have been thought of yesterday.

There is nothing mystical about creating the right conditions to allow inventive steps to take place. If a need or gap in the market can be identified, you can then take an inventive step to fill it. Inventing is a business resource, as strategic and structured as any other. Good inventions do not happen by chance. They are the result of an understanding of the way new products succeed or fail, combined with an injection of logic, possibility, probability and science. This is what we practise at Inventive Step.

Businesses are faced with bigger problems than ever before. For a relatively low cost, consumers can have all the technological and aesthetic features they want on their products. This has made it difficult for companies to differentiate themselves on product features in the way they used to. They need to produce something that no one else has or has even thought of and which others cannot copy because of its patent. They need an inventive step - something that is completely new and not at all obvious.

As with any other area of business, you need to start with a clear brief. It could be streamlining of a food processor, rebranding a service or value engineering a system; there is a brief, a thought and development process and finally a solution. That solution will enable a company or manufacturer to enjoy a competitive advantage and the financial reward it brings.

For instance, a regulation was recently passed in Australia outlawing the use of spirit dispensers which could give short measures. However, the only product on the market which complied with the law cost pounds 100. Inventive Step created a solution which was not just priced at only pounds 10 but delivered accurate double measures twice as quick.

Or, to take another area, the UK's leading bicycle accessory manufacturer needed to increase sales of its best-selling brake blocks. Cyclists weren't replacing them because they did not know when they were worn out. Inventive Step devised the world's first brake block that raised a flag when it was wearing out. Simple but effective, and it gave the company a commercial lead it never had before.

In the area of car security, Inventive Step developed the world famous stoplock from brief to delivery on paper of the final design in just four weeks. The product then went on to become the UK's number one in car protection. Ideas like these not only create competitive advantage and allow companies to step ahead of their rivals, they can positively impact directly on the bottom line of a business.

Just like employing the expertise and experience of an accountant, legal practice or a market research company, we work to a tight brief. We deliver a package which contains consultancy, applied thought, drawings and a patent application. These solutions are sometimes evolutionary, sometimes revolutionary, but always pertinent to the objective at hand.

But discovering something new and obvious is not enough. The idea must also be legally protected for a company to stay ahead - it must be patented. A trawl through the annals of history will reveal hundreds of inventions which have enabled us to lead easier, faster, more productive business and more enjoyable social lives. Try to imagine the world without the television, the washing machine, cat's eyes, fibre optics, the stop- lock, microchips, velcro, answering machines, lasers, the microwave, the artificial heart or penicillin. Now imagine if your company owned the original patent on any of these ideas!

A patent lasts 20 years, costs between pounds 225 and pounds 100,000, depending upon its geographical rights, and can take anything from a few months to several years to be granted. Of the 27,000 UK, 10,000 European and 3,000 worldwide patent applications received by the Patent Office each year, only a small percentage are granted. Of all the applications made by clients of Inventive Step, 75 per cent have been turned into profit. Results like these speak for themselves.

Businesses have to look ahead and turn their needs, ideas and ideals into reality. That is where Inventive Step can help, with the business resource to deliver invention.

Alan Somerfield is proprietor of Inventive Step