It's not a uniquely British problem, but in the UK the gap between the number of good ideas and the number that we manage to turn into workable products is enormous. The British have a peerless global reputation for innovation and creation. But an equally unrivalled reputation for being terrible at exploiting those assets.
"There's no doubt about it, when it comes to invention, the British are the best. But they're probably the worst when it comes to bringing things to market," says Trevor Baylis, inventor of the clockwork radio and the founder of Baylis Brands, a company which helps inventors get ideas to market.
The key stumbling block is that most people have neither the confidence nor the knowledge to pursue their ideas. The thoughts that usually follow a great idea are: it will take too much time, or I wouldn't know where to start, or it's too complex for me to progress. But there is help out there. It's just a matter of knowing where to look.
Helen O'Driscoll's journey to get her idea from the back of an envelope and onto the shelves began while watching TV. The former arts administrator, 29, and her partner Duncan Green are the inventors of the Yukka bin, the world's first collapsible and machine-washable kitchen bin. The idea came as a response to her and Green's monthly bin-washing squabbles. But it was only when she saw a programme on TV that the idea became reality.
The BBC programme, Innovation Nation, was a national competition aimed at getting the public to send in their ideas for new inventions. O'Driscoll and Green submitted their thought and went on to win a live viewers' poll for the best idea. Less than two years later, the Yukka bin is on sale in John Lewis and House of Fraser stores and is the flagship product of Yukka Designs, the company launched by O'Driscoll and Green to pursue more ideas.
The Government is keen to support innovators such as the Yukka duo. In 1998 it set up the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) "to help talented individuals reach their potential, to help innovative ideas reach the market, and to contribute to public knowledge and appreciation of science, technology and the arts." NESTA runs a series of awards schemes offering financial support to inventors and would-be entrepreneurs.
There are a range of government-backed initiatives to encourage innovation, such as the £320m Technology Programme, which helps businesses take ideas off the drawing board and into the marketplace. However, public sector initiatives - and the reams of paperwork and bureaucracy they involve - are only part of the answer.
Trevor Baylis came to national attention with the wind-up radio, which he invented after watching a documentary on the lack of information about Aids in Africa in the early 1990s. Long frustrated at the problems faced by inventors trying to get ideas to market, in 2003 he set up Baylis Brands.
Baylis Brands employs a team of experts which includes Baylis and his co-directors, plus a team of patent attorneys. It also works closely with external partners such as the National Physical Laboratory. For a £100 fee, they prepare a non-disclosure agreement, review and assess the applicant's invention, carry out patent searches, research the market and prepare preliminary documentation. If the invention has potential, Baylis Brands looks into prototyping and testing, and makes contact with manufacturers and retailers. For products that make it to market, Baylis Brands takes an equity stake of 25 to 30 per cent in the company. It has received over 1,000 applications, 10 of which are already on the market or due to launch in the next 12 months.
"I'm 68. I've been there. This is a chance for me to try to help other inventors," says Baylis. "One of this country's main assets is knowledge, but we do so little with it." He believes that anybody can be an inventor, given the right encouragement: "If you can solve a problem, you're halfway there."
Dr David Williams is more than halfway there already. A consultant anaesthetist at Swansea's Morriston Hospital, he and colleague Dr John Grimly are the inventors behind Shaker Scope, one of the finalists in the 2005 Medical Futures awards.
Shaker Scope is a kinetically powered light source for medical instruments - bulb-free and powered by shaking it up and down. It was inspired by Williams's work overseas in Zambia and Nepal, where traditional battery or mains-powered light sources are impractical and bulbs often hard to come by. Originally designed as an ophthalmoscope, the product has been refined to slot on to various medical instruments for examining eyes, nose, ears, throat and mouth.
Williams says the idea came to him in August 2003. He worked up a crude prototype, but the pressures of work and a lack of knowledge about what to do next meant that one year on it had progressed little, until a friend suggested he get in touch with Medical Futures.
Medical Futures was set up in 2001 by orthopaedic surgeon Dr Andy Goldberg to promote and encourage innovation and inventions in healthcare. Goldberg says he got fed up with hearing people talk about the great ideas they'd had but which never got further than the pub. This year will see the fifth annual Medical Futures awards, judged by experts from the medical, healthcare, pharmaceutical, legal and venture capital communities. It also runs a series of regional and national events, such as the i2 event next month in London.
"There are two streams at i2." says Goldberg. "One for people who already have products and want to pitch them to our panel of experts to get feedback and guidance. The second stream is more a series of workshops aimed at giving people the knowledge to progress their ideas. I call them idea-preneurs, not entrepreneurs. They haven't got to the entrepreneurial stage, they just have fantastic ideas that they want to take forward but don't know how. So we have workshops on intellectual property law and patenting, on marketing, on prototyping and design. Plus, it's a great opportunity to network and share knowledge and experiences," he says.
Goldberg's focus is on the medical and healthcare professions, but he says that every sector has potential for innovation; it's just a question of giving people the confidence and the knowledge to take their ideas forward. If we can do that, he says, the UK can capitalise on its creativity and innovation, rather than watch from afar as it flourishes overseas or, perhaps worse, lies drowning at the bottom of a pint pot.
'We'd probably still be plugging away'
The devastating pictures of flooded homes in New Orleans are familiar territory for David Elliott. An idea he came up with eight years ago could help those affected by floods regain their homes. Having worked in flood restoration for several years, David came up with a way of drying out buildings more quickly, efficiently and cleanly than the standard method.
"The conventional method of drying buildings using fans and de-humidifiers is very dirty. It's also noisy and inefficient; it can only be done in a limited area at a time and doesn't direct air-flow efficiently," says David.
"So I came up with the Direct Air Dryer. It's like an air-bed with holes on one or both sides. It attaches to a hot-air pump to pump air in, which escapes through the holes, drying the surface it's in contact with. Because they lie on top of the surface, they stop the dust and muck from flying around. They're also quieter and interconnectable. You could dry a football pitch if you wanted to.
"My brother Jack and I decided to do something with the idea. But we didn't have large financial resources or contacts. You hear so many stories about inventors being ripped off. The patent process is a nightmare as well, with all the legal jargon and form-filling," he says.
They approached Trevor Baylis, who liked the idea and passed it on to one of the patent attorneys at Baylis Brands. "He could see its potential straight away. He made sure our idea was properly protected," says David.
Having patented the invention, Baylis Brands approached a flood restoration company on the brothers' behalf. The Direct Air Dryer passed its tests with flying colours.
Four months later, David and Jack have given up their jobs to run Direct Air Dryers Ltd full-time. They've already sold 30 kits and aim to be selling 40 a month by the end of the year to achieve their £500,000 sales target.
"We formed Direct Air Dryers Ltd with Baylis Brands. They own a percentage of the company, but it's a fair trade-off. I don't think we could ever have done it without them. We'd probably still be plugging away - or been ripped off," says David.