Inventors seek their maker: Inventalink aims to find a market for good ideas. Michael Harrison reports

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The Independent Online
SOME DAY someone somewhere may feel the urge to honour Edwina Currie for her gifts to humanity. Whether these will include the Flora Frame only time will tell.

As the name suggests, it is a sort of picture frame into which one inserts freshly cut blooms rather than snapshots of loved ones. The Flora Frame is the invention of a West Country farmer and his wife, but Mrs Currie can fairly claim to have been the motivating force.

On a fateful day in December 1988 the then junior health minister casually told ITN news that most of Britain's stock of egg-laying hens was infected with salmonella bacteria.

Six months later Roger and Clare Massey were out of business, their 46,000 free-range hens slaughtered, their workforce of 25 on the dole and their debts to the bank piling up. At the last count they stood at more than pounds 500,000.

'It was my wife who came up with the idea of the Flora Frame but she would never have thought of it, nor needed to, had not all the salmonella business happened,' Mr Massey said.

Over the summer the Masseys beavered away making frames by hand in their farmhouse near Exeter, and by the autumn they were ready to test the product at a small agricultural show in Gloucestershire. To their amazement they sold pounds 300 worth. Immediately they set about protecting their invention by applying for patents in Britain, the US and Germany.

In the past three months the Flora Frame has struck gold. Not only have the Masseys licensed production to a British company, Masters Wilkerson, they have just returned from a two- week tour of the US during which they lined up three further would-be licensees. This year the Masseys expect to shift at least 500,000 frames.

Every year thousands of inventions are dreamt up by semi-professionals, academics, company chairmen and housewives with time on their hands and a good idea up their sleeve.

Inventing things is an expensive business. It can cost up to pounds 25,000 to obtain worldwide patent protection. Yet precious few inventions turn into prototypes and very few inventors are as lucky as the Masseys.

Take Peter McKay from Liverpool. An artist who makes his living painting landscapes of the Lake District, he produced the prototype of his 'twist action' mop three-and-a-half years ago.

The head twists around the shaft of the mop, enabling the user to wring out twice the volume of water without the effort associated with the traditional mop and bucket.

Mr McKay was unprepared for the 'inertia' of British industry, however. 'Several big companies have seen the prototype and one showed a lot of interest, ' he said.

'The marketing manager really liked it but the design department didn't on the grounds they hadn't designed it. Unfortunately the design department won the argument.'

After three attempts at a prototype he is disillusioned with manufacturers. 'They don't seem to be interested unless you can come up with a prototype that can be copied straight away and put on the production line.'

A similar story is told by Henry Powell, a furniture restorer from Kew, Surrey, who has spent the past five years and pounds 30,000 attempting to interest manufacturers of DIY products in an electric paint stripper that uses an infra-red heat source rather than heated air. Despite receiving a pounds 13,500 grant from the Department of Trade and Industry to develop the concept and working with laboratories to perfect the design, both Bosch and Black and Decker have turned Mr Powell's invention down.

'The biggest difficulty is getting anybody to look at an invention in the first place,' he says. 'The next biggest is getting them to part with money because they have the idea it will become a bottomless pit.'

Despite their varied experiences, the Masseys, Mr McKay and Mr Powell have something in common: all are on the books of Inventalink.

Set up 11 years ago by an inventor, an advertising executive and a patent agent, Inventalink is a bridge between inventors and the commercial world.

Inventalink sees 2,000 inventors a year but takes on only 100 to 150 - those reckoned to have commercially viable ideas. Its fees range from pounds 1,000 to pounds 3,000. For the minimum amount it will take 35 per cent of any income resulting from licence deals it arranges. At the maximum fee, its cut falls to 7.5 per cent.

Richard Paine, Inventalink's chairman, believes the recession must be ending. 'Companies now seem to be a lot braver, a lot more decisive and a lot richer. In the first quarter of this year we have concluded about 15 licensing agreements - the same number as in the whole of 1992. We now have companies coming to us and saying we must diversify, we must have another product line.'

Recent successes include the Endacott oil separator, the invention of an offshore engineer, which separates oil and water efficiently and at low cost; a camera flash unit that eliminates the problem of 'red eye'; and electroluminescent safety signs.

There is, Mr Paine said, no 'typical' inventor, although over the past few years there has been an increase in those with backgrounds in industries hard-hit by the recession such as construction and property.

What they share is an unshakeable and sometimes obsessive conviction that their invention is a world beater.

Brian Neighbour is regularly on the receiving end of that conviction. As technical manager for the UK arm of Robert Bosch, he is often the first port of call.

'I have a file four feet thick of dead inventions,' said Mr Neighbour, who specialises in DIY products and power tools.

'In many cases inventors who come to us think they have invented the Workmate all over again. In fact in most cases they have come up with a product with a very narrow application.'

Mr Neighbour refers inventions on to Bosch's research departments in Germany and Switzerland. About 90 per cent are rejected immediately and none has yet been taken on.

Ever present is friction between the inventor and the would-be licensee, born of the former's desire to prevent his invention from being stolen or copied and the latter's reluctance to submit to confidentiality agreements.

Few large manufacturing companies will sign such agreements. Mr Neighbour said: 'We've got 6,000 R&D staff around the world. How do I know what each of them is working on every moment of the day?'

What inventors, licensees and brokers like Inventalink do agree on is the importance of finding the right industrial partner.

As Roger Massey put it: 'It took us about 18 months to come up with a licensee because initially we were talking to the wrong sort of people. Ours is a picture frame product but we were approaching companies in the flower business.'

The Flora Frame will be launched next month at the Autumn Gift Fair in the Birmingham NEC. Perhaps Mrs Currie should buy one as a memento.

(Photograph omitted)