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Published: Sunday, 10/9/2005

From 'Aha!' to entrepreneurship

BY HOMER BRICKEY
BLADE SENIOR BUSINESS WRITER
Bob Teeple, a millwright who holds several patents, has licensed a Perrysburg businessman to distribute his invention. Mr. Teeple's Hitch Buddy acts like a fifth wheel for towing recreational vehicles. Bob Teeple, a millwright who holds several patents, has licensed a Perrysburg businessman to distribute his invention. Mr. Teeple's Hitch Buddy acts like a fifth wheel for towing recreational vehicles.
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THE CHANCES of an individual successfully marketing an invention are slim, experts say. But several area inventors seem to be beating the odds.

Bob Teeple, of Gibsonburg, a millwright who holds several patents, said demand has grown for his Hitch Buddy, a wheeled unit that acts like a fifth wheel for towing recreational vehicles. He has assembled about 50 of the $6,000 units, licensing a Perrysburg businessman to build a network of distributors and to promote the device.

"We've been pretty successful with this product," he said.

Patti Verb, of Oak Harbor, said the Kneez E-Z, a cushioned floor coaster designed to make house cleaning easier, is starting to sell on a Web site, at $59.95 apiece, but she has higher hopes.

"We want to sell Kneez E-Z in catalogs and have sent an application to have it featured on QVC [a cable-TV shopping channel], and we are also looking for local hardware and home-supply stores that would be interested in carrying our product," she said.

About five patents are issued each week to Toledo-area inventors, and many of those are assigned, or given, to the firms that employ them.

But making money on an invention on one's own isn't easy, experts said, and requires luck, hard work, and a business plan.

"All inventors have high hopes," said Ed Zimmer, creator of an entrepreneurial Web site in Ann Arbor.

Patti Verb, left, and her mother, Barbara Meyer, developed the Kneez E-Z design from a device Ms. Verb's grandfather made. Patti Verb, left, and her mother, Barbara Meyer, developed the Kneez E-Z design from a device Ms. Verb's grandfather made.
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To succeed in marketing an idea, an inventor needs either to license product for someone else to make or start a business to make it, he said. Licensing is the more difficult, he added.

Too many inventors rush to get patents, and often spend thousands of dollars in the process, even though the patent alone may not do much good, he explained. Inventors must be willing to make and market their products themselves, he said.

Those who do start their own companies stand a better-than-even chance of succeeding if they have entrepreneurial skills and have done their homework, he maintained.

Local patent attorneys say they often give inventors a dose of reality, too.

Patrick Pacella, a Toledo patent attorney, put together the trademark and patent applications for Ms. Verb.

"She's one of the most successful ones," he said.

"The problem for many individuals is they have no business plan, they don't know how to sell or manufacture [the product], and they don't have financing. She managed to get all four factors together."

Ms. Verb, who co-designed the device with her mother, Barbara Meyer, of Toledo, a retired banker, said she comes from a family of inventors. Her grandfather and great-grandfather both held patents for a variety of products.

Perrysburg patent attorney Donald Fraser, who helped Mr. Teeple get the patent for the Hitch Buddy, said not every product has such promise, and many inventors need advice from such groups as SCORE, the U.S. Small Business Administration's Service Corps of Retired Executives.

"One of the first things I do is ask how [an inventor] plans to turn the invention into an income stream," said Mr. Fraser. "The answer to that question gives me some idea about what to do to help."

Mr. Teeple licensed his invention to Greg Conyers, who started Hitch Buddy Inc., which markets and sells the device.

Mr. Pacella said he encourages people to first see what they can do on their own before beginning the patent process, including visiting the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, which is designated as a U.S. Patent & Trademark Depository.

Julianne Claydon, a business specialist in the main library downtown, said she walks inventors through the steps of using the government's patent-search system and helps them find other resources, such as books aimed at helping inventors market their ideas.

At times, as many as five to 10 inventors visit the library intent on doing a patent search, but many abandon the idea when they find it takes several hours or days, she said.

An inventor can pursue a patent on his or her own, but experts caution that the application language could be crucial in a court case developed later.

Patent attorneys generally charge hundreds of dollars to more than $1,000 for an initial search and a provisional patent, which can buy an inventor up to a year to market the idea.

A full patent can cost $3,000 to

$12,000 or more, depending on how complicated it is.

Budding inventors also are warned to beware of firms that purport to market inventions.

"All of the ones that I am familiar with are scams," said Eugene Quinn, a patent attorney and president of IPWatchdog Inc. in Syracuse, N.Y. "They do deliver what they promise, but through careful wording they promise nothing."

Many won't even submit applications, and when they do, they don't follow up to push through a patent, he said. And, such firms will file patents for people on inventions that are silly, all for a fee, he said. Such scams don't reveal all the costs initially, and likely could cost the patent applicant $7,000 to $10,000, he added.

"Reputable firms are up front about the costs from day one," he said.

The local inventors who are hopeful about their products have invested widely varying amounts of money.

W. Dewey Caldwell and his son William, both of the Toledo suburb of Oregon, patented a mechanism for locking doors of construction trailers and buildings. Their up-front costs are $9,000 or more, said Dewey Caldwell.

"We are confident that our security system is better than any on the market today," said the elder Mr. Caldwell, a retired pipe-

fitter, adding that he believes a manufacturer in the trailer industry will sign on soon to produce and market the invention.

The product, he said, resulted from several break-ins of trailers used by his son, who owns Bill J. Caldwell Builders, and the loss of thousands of dollars' worth of pneumatic tools needed for home building.

Spending considerably more was Mr. Teeple, who said he has "probably $150,000, easy" tied up in his hitch product. Still, he said he has "no doubt" it will pay off.

Ms. Verb said only that Kneez E-Z has cost her "a lot, thousands. I wouldn't even know where to begin [estimating cost]."

The idea for the invention goes back 50 years, she explained, when her grandfather made the first crude prototype to help her mother clean the family summer home. Her mother would kneel on towels to clean the sand tracked through the home.

Ms. Verb said she went to work in earnest on the invention while recuperating from an auto accident.

"I would like to think my grandfather would be very proud," she said.

Contact Homer Brickey at:

homerbrickey@theblade.com

or 419-724-6129.



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