The Human Condition: The best things since sliced bread

Jojo Moyes met six inventors with patents pending on products we'll wonder how we lived without
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Think "inventor" and Professor Branestawm and Heath Robinson spring to mind. The words "mad" "garden shed" and "bearded" are not far behind. These days, surely, new designs come from the vast and lavishly funded R&D departments of international corporations, not from individuals with day jobs who are suddenly struck by a blinding flash of inspiration. Not necessarily. Invention is alive and well, and you don't need to be a technical wizard to turn your brilliant idea into reality.

Gail Lewis, 36, lives in London. "In 1992 I was working as contract manager of a cleaning company, to earn money while studying. The floors of the office were always dirty because of people throwing away half-full cups from the vending machine. I had to manage the budget and I was paying out for huge amounts of carpet cleaning. I couldn't tell people not to throw half empty cups of coffee in the wastebags, or tell the cleaners not to drag the bags, so I had to solve the problem. I hit on the idea of using a nappy to line the bin. I started to make them up at home and bring them in. Then I took a few along to a big trade cleaning show to see the response. One company ordered 40,000, but we didn't have a manufacturer. Since then we've been trying to get a patent, which eventually came through in July this year. I'm now a fashion student, but we're still working on the Absorbie Sack. It's on trial in two hospitals and is sure to make money. I still invent; I like making things work better. My first invention, aged 18, was a foil bag to carry food in. Now they're everywhere. "

Gary Turner, 39, lives in Essex. "My idea started when I tried to find a strap that would hold down my briefcase and portable computer so they wouldn't slide around in the boot of my car. I was forever paying out for repairs on my computer. The Strapping Stanley can actually be adapted to fit various items. It's a simple design but versatile. This was the first thing I've ever invented. I'm a financial adviser and some time after I had designed it I was visiting someone at Inventorlink, a company which links inventors to industry, in my professional capacity. I showed it to him and he got really enthusiastic. Now we're in quite advanced discussions with a manufacturer. I'm not tempted to give up my job, I enjoy it too much. But inventing certainly makes you look at things differently. What is amazing is the number of people who've told me their own brilliant idea."

Alistair Swanwick, 29, lives in Hampshire. "The inspiration for Ball Board came from seeing someone do a balancing act on a ball, a large ball that you stand on. I thought it was a very old-fashioned form of balancing that young people might enjoy. I'm a product design student and so I went down to the workshop and actually made one myself. My friends tried it out and liked it. But half the problem is you can't go in to see the manufacturer and expect them to take it seriously. Very often they have a company policy not to deal with individuals. Now I've got a patent pending. There's nothing in my family that has led to this - most of my family are in the law. It's just something I've always liked to do. I wouldn't call it inventing. The word inventor has funny connotations. A 'product designer' suggests something a bit more businesslike."

Kamal Ahmed is 25 and lives in Birmingham. "The idea for Ranks Game came about in 1992, when Channel 4 broadcast the chess championships. There was such a big audience, prize money of pounds 1m, grand masters - I was taken aback. I thought, it's only a board game and yet look at the interest in it. I wanted to make a game like that, if not better. Now my younger brothers play it and they like it a lot. I had tried inventing other things but they didn't go far. I used to draw comics, and I tried to sell them. I tried to improve the Coca Cola bottle, the Walkman - I try to enhance things that already exist. At the moment I work in a shop selling gimmick items, like cyberpets. I see opportunities in everything now. I think people think if you invent you have to have specialist knowledge, but once you've got an idea there's so much help out there, if you know where to look for it. "

Melanie Thompson is 37 and lives in Solihull. "I work in drama production for the BBC. My baby Olivia was about three months old and my husband was on location a lot so we were doing a lot of travelling. I was stopping at every service station to feed or change her and I thought 'Why can't they do something to make this easier?' Then I was feeding her one night and it literally just hit me. I woke my husband in the morning and he said it was a brilliant idea. I thought it must already be being done somewhere but I contacted the patent offices and they said there was nothing like it. I didn't know what to do then, so I called the RAC's free legal advice line and they put me in touch with some intellectual property rights lawyers. The lawyer I spoke to pointed out that because it was such a simple idea, it would be very easily copied. So I'm not allowed to even describe it. Dry Babies will be probably to be launched next year. I've been stunned by what I've had to go through. I thought I'd just write to a big company who would take it on, but I've ended up being part of the whole process. I've never done anything like this before. It was just something that came to me in the middle of the night...I'll probably never think of anything else ever again."

Randy Reynolds is 40 and lives in Norfolk. "My friend had a bad back and so did I, and I invented Door Bars from talking to him about stretching exercises he was doing. I started to use them for my own back, hanging from the bar, or lowering it to do sit ups, and it seemed to work. I'm a bit of a fitness fanatic - I used to be a boxer and a boxing trainer - so I've got a good understanding of how the body works. It's all done with body weight, you see. My wife uses it to keep fit and so do our children. I thought there might be a market in it, because it's so simple. So me and my friend made a few, and advertised them. But we didn't do it with any professionalism and we lost a lot of money. Now I've got a patent pending. My normal job is selling caravans. I won't give up my job, but I'm always working on the next thing.

For advice on putting your invention into production and on the market, contact Inventorlink Products on 0171 323 4323

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