West Coast Wizards
Monterey County is home to numerous mothers (and fathers) of invention.
Thursday, February 5, 1998
From the ridiculous to the sublime, it would be hard to imagine a world devoid of such modern marvels of invention as computer and laser technologies, microwave ovens and cellular communication systems, or even velcro and silicone breast implants.
And, while such break-throughs may not make life "better," modern technology has certainly made it much more productive, convenient, and at times, fun.
Monterey County residents are part of that "brave new world" of modern technology and invention. In the past 30 years alone, area residents can lay claim to owning more than 1,000 patents for a host of inventions ranging from submersible amphibious vehicles and genetically engineered plants and computer-generated scanning devices, to pizza trays, fake tattoos and a combination rotating clothes hangar and artificial Christmas tree.
Despite their wide-ranging backgrounds and the diversity of their ideas and interests, there is much that Monterey County inventors share in common.
"From my experience, most inventors are very individualistic and entrepreneurial, people who are bright, energetic, innovative and somewhat eccentric," says Don Boys, whose Central Coast Patent Agency in Aromas has assisted numerous area inventors in the preparation and prosecution for patents. "Most of the people I work with are driven to problem-solving and do it for the personal satisfaction. All have the dream of being wealthy and another Bill Gates, not all make it."
Boys is quick to warn that the journey from idea to patentable invention can be long, expensive and fraught with unanticipated obstacles along the way.
"The biggest misconception about patents is that they are somehow a reward the government grants you for being bright," explains Boys, who says securing even a basic patent can take up to three years and cost upwards of $7,000. "What a patent really is is a limited monopoly granted quid pro quo for your agreeing to donate the invention to the public after the limited monopoly. The purpose is to get new ideas into public knowledge, and to create jobs and economic growth."
Boys key bit advice to would-be inventors is to conduct extensive study and research before pursuing a patent and to hire individuals with the background, knowledge and expertise in the complexities of securing a patent.
"Learn as much about the process and go to someone like me to do a very good search," advises Boys, "but be prepared to have not just a good idea."
The best first step any inventor can take, says Boys, is to get on the Internet to research the US Patent Office''s extensive website. According to Boys, the invention of the Internet itself has made inventing significantly easier.
In order to learn more about the secrets to patenting a successful invention, Coast Weekly sought out some of Monterey County''s own home-grown inventors to find out what it takes to make it in the competitive, high-flying world of modern technology; and to possibly preview what new marvels of ingenuity await us in the coming decades.
Inventor, Disease-Resistant Lettuce Monterey
As one of the world''s top agricultural producers, it should come as no surprise that Monterey County is also one of the world''s leading producers of genetically-engineered plants.
Among the leaders in the search for new strains of more highly productive, disease-resistant plants is Monterey resident Philip Sarreal, senior plant breeder for the Harris Moran Seed Co. in San Juan Bautista.
Sarreal was credited last November with a patent for a new strain of lettuce that is resistant to five common, highly destructive diseases. Although Sarreal never envisioned himself as an inventor working at the cutting edge of biotechnology, the roots of his discoveries and invention, like that of many inventors, can be traced back to his early childhood.
"When I was a kid my mom introduced me to planting little seeds," recalls Sarreal, who holds a master''s degree in plant breeding and genetics from the University of the Phillipines.
"When the other kids were taking care of their pets, I was watching seedlings grow. Plants were my pets, but at that time I was just a kid whiling away the time and had no awareness I would someday be designing my own plants."
The challenge behind Sarreal''s most recent invention was to design a lettuce that was resistant to the numerous diseases that affect lettuce production. The lettuce diseases Sarreal targeted include lettuce mosaic virus, which leads to stunting of the lettuce plant, corky root bacteria, which damages the roots and limits nutrient exchange, as well as downy mildew, big vein and sclerotinia, all of which can wreak havoc on farm productivity.
"Technically we''re talking seeds that are patented and then sold to big commercial professional growers," explains Sarreal.
While the desire to increase farm productivity is an integral driving mechanism in the creation of new disease-resistant plants, Sarreal says that in the case of his most recent patent, it was old-fashioned, cutthroat global competition that spurred him on.
"To give ourselves a competitive edge, we''re always releasing new varieties," says Sarreal. "We started on this new patent in 1992 after our competitors came out with the same varieties of lettuce that we commercially released with great success in 1990. When we looked at all the molecular, horticultural and genetic fingerprints of their varieties we found they were the same as the ones we released.
"When we confronted them they admitted they selected from our variety, but when we looked at all the legal options we felt the time and expense to pursue a lawsuit weren''t worth it," adds Sarreal. "We decided to inquire on patents for a new variety and pursued a utility patent as a hedge against future releases so they couldn''t be stolen, so to speak."
According to Sarreal, disease resistance occurs naturally in many non-commercially desirable varieties of lettuce, and his particular challenge was to combine them into one commercially desirable variety.
Sarreal used two breeding techniques to create his new lettuce- traditional cross-pollination between one plant with the disease resistant gene and another plant to produce a third plant with the desired resistance; as well as genetic engineering where genetic markers associated with the disease resistant genes are identified at the molecular level, extracted, and attached to the DNA of another plant.
What made Sarreal''s latest project particularly daunting was the need to generate five different plant populations for each of the five disease resistant genes. According to Sarreal, the original cross-breeding began in 1981 and took 10 years until a commercial release was ready.
"You have to grow a minimum of up to 500,000 plants until you get a single one with the desired resistance and horticultural characteristics," says Sarreal.
For as staggering as those numbers are, they are fairly typical when it comes to seed production. According to Sarreal, Harris Moran produces 50,000 pounds of seeds a year, with one pound being equal to 450,000 seeds.
For Sarreal, the satisfaction from designing new plants is found not only from the science end, but in the economic and environmental benefits genetically-engineered seeds provide.
"Overall the science end is the most fascinating," says Sarreal, "but the satisfaction comes from creating something of value to people using a more environmentally friendly approach.
"As a scientist I''m very much for genetic engineering but it''s a different approach with plants than animals," adds Sarreal, who acknowledges peoples'' concerns over genetically manipulated food products. "It''s not a mammalian system we''re manipulating and there is less morality involved with plant physiology."
Padlock Inventor Prunedale
If you ask Jewell Taylor the most important aspect of being a successful inventor, she''ll probably tell you that in her case, the key to success is a very strong lock.
As the holder of five patents and 16 worldwide trademarks for her padlock designs and mechanisms, Taylor and her Prunedale-based company, Lock R Lock Inc. have built a $7 million-business selling her unique padlocks, primarily to school districts throughout California and the country. Taylor says she has already sold tens of thousands of her locks to schools nationwide and a recent direct mail brochure resulted in more than 100,000 orders.
For as important as her unique concept and approach to lock design were, Taylor insists a good idea is just the first step on the long and perilous road of invention.
"Once you get in the patenting process the horror story begins," Taylor, who at age 63 looks more like a kindly aunt than a savvy businesswoman and inventor, says with a knowing laugh. "You have two years to get your patent and often you don''t have the luxury of selling a lot of products to start paying for your original patent.
"The original patent for my push-button lock and key was supposed to cost $35,000, but by the time I was finished I spent almost $80,000 for the patent and $10,000 for the trademark."
Based on her experiences, Taylor says a patent is only as valuable as one''s ability to sell and protect the marketing of their invention, which is why Taylor ended up spending almost $700,000 to secure additional trademarks and patents for the different security items that go on her locks.
"I am patient by nature and tenacious having been in business," explains Taylor.
In addition to her use of a push-button combination code, Taylor''s lock uses a patented swing-arm design, which she says is superior to the traditional pop-up shackle.
"The locksmiths I used for advice said that was the weakest part all locks," explains Taylor, who spent two-and-a-half years perfecting her design. "I knew if I could make something different it could not be compromised."
Taylor says her trademarked octagonal-shaped lock designed to resemble a stop sign will not only help her market her invention, but prevent others from marketing their own locks using her design concepts or brand names.
"We wanted to be sure if anyone from another country tried to use the name we would have the trademarks," says Taylor. "A US patent won''t stop a foreign item from coming into the US, but a trademark is more obvious and can stop an item right at customs."
Taylor''s idea for the push-button combination came as a result of her efforts to design a lock for her partially-sighted father, who had difficulty reading a rotary dial combination lock. Taylor''s answer was a push-button lock operated by hand.
"It turned out to be a product farmers liked," says Taylor. "If they had to open gates late at night if they knew the combination they could feel the buttons. It works like a dial phone in the dark."
Knowing that her invention could only be as successful as the market she created for it, Taylor turned to her teaching background to recall how school administrations needed to have student locks they could open readily in case of emergencies.
"Teachers told me they wanted a push-button lock with a key override, so I checked into the school market and found that 12 million locks are sold every year," explains Taylor, who says that most of those sold were combination locks with a key.
Despite the financial rewards of her unique lock designs, Taylor says the personal rewards from her invention are just as valuable to her.
"There was a time I gave my lock to a blind student at Fresno College," Taylor says with evident pride. "Once I described how the lock worked and she was able to do it, there was a thrill on her face that was the most rewarding thing to me."
Inventor, 3-D Laser Scanners Monterey
When we look back at the marvelous inventions that have characterized the 20th century, what is most fascinating is how ideas that seem to belong more to the realm of science fiction eventually come to be taken for granted as a matter of everyday fact.
In the case of Stephen Addleman and his family''s Monterey-based company Cyberware, their patented 3-D laser scanners have gone in just a few short years from providing special effects for state-of-the-art science fiction films to more recent applications in medicine, ergonomics, and clothing design.
Cyberware''s successes with its 3-D scanners highlight how inventors create new, more efficient, and unexpected applications by building upon and refining existing technologies.
"Initially we didn''t know what technique we were going to use," explains Addleman. "There was some literature out there that if you project a pattern on somebody you see the lines displaced by the surface, but the problem was when you analyze the position lines it was difficult to sort out which line was which, especially with the discontinuity of a nose or arm. We simply used one line and figured out a way to measure that line quickly.
"Our patent was in the design and use of analog and digital circuitry to analyze the lines of light that come out of a video tube," adds Addleman. "Our patents aren''t for the scanner but the analyzer and technique for folding light."
Cyberware''s scanners were initially used to create life-like busts of subjects that could be sculpted by milling machines operated by computers programmed with the scanning data. It was only when Hollywood discovered the scanners and used them in science fiction films that Cyberware technology took off.
Films like director James Cameron''s The Abyss and Terminator 2, as well as Star Trek IV, The Doors, and Batman II, took advantage of the ability of Cyberware'' scanners to digitize laser-scanned measurements of the human face and manipulate and modify the data to create eye-popping effects.
"The number-one application was busts but suddenly after the Hollywood films the application pulled away from pure portrait sculpture and people walked in with different objects of all shapes and sizes they wanted scanned, from shoes to dinosaurs," says Addleman.
While Hollywood still makes extensive use of Cyberware''s scanners, Addleman is just as pleased to see a more human face put on his company''s technology.
"From the early days one of the things we worked on was creating software to simulate tissue," says Addleman, "and one of our evolving projects was to create a digitizing burn mask like an orthodontics'' mold to help tissue grow out against surface. This is a very new application using our patented design to digitize the other half of a non-burned face."
And in fact, Addleman says Cyberware scanners are now being used for a host of practical applications. Hospitals use the scanners to digitize residual limbs to make lifelike prosthetic replacement limbs for amputees; the Air Force and the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety Research are using Cyberware full body scanners as an ergonomic design tool to create cockpits, flight suits and other equipment. The scanners are also used for virtual reality gaming simulations and scenarios, where an individual can be scanned, have their presence altered, and become a presence others can see in a virtual environment.
Addleman envisions additional commercial uses for his scanners by fashion and clothing designers to allow people to preview themselves wearing different clothes on a computer screen, and to then order what they like best.
As exciting as the Hollywood applications were for Cyberware technology, Addleman says it''s the more practical applications that are most fulfilling.
"So far Hollywood hasn''t done something so sleazy like a slasher movie," says Addleman, "but it is nice working with Hollywood. That''s glamorous and it entertains people, but it would be nice to have a whole division that dealt with things with heart."
Inventor, Re-Mail Reversible Envelope Pacific Grove
For as often as we think of the high environmental costs of technology, Pacific Grove inventor Richard Chereton thinks about putting inventions to work in order to save the environment.
A computer engineer who describes himself as a "pragmatic dreamer," Chereton has invented and is about to test market a reversible envelope that he says can cut in half the amount of paper waste that is causing the loss of innumerable forests and overwhelming our landfills.
"I dream of practical things and think the reversible envelope is an idea whose time has come," says Chereton, who feels the recycling boom has created a market for his invention that didn''t exist 10 or 20 years ago.
"There is a window of market opportunity, and if you have an idea and the market is not there it may take years to develop," says Chereton. "Twenty years ago recycling was considered weird, but now it is very common."
Chereton''s envelope is an elegantly ingenious solution to the puzzle of how to reuse a commodity that is normally used just once and tossed away. Employing special adhesive strips on both sides of the envelope and easy to use directions and folding tabs, Chereton''s design will work for any size envelope.
Chereton sees the most immediate application of his reversible envelope to reduce the massive number of monthly billings sent out by phone, credit card and utility companies.
"What irritates me is waste," says Chereton, "and with my design you can use the envelope more than once. My first thought on the whole subject was environmental, and my envelope can have a positive environmental effect using a practical design that will save paper, trees, energy and landfills."
The spirit of invention runs in Chereton''s family back to an uncle who invented the first portable steam iron, a crystal oscillator to sync movie film and sound, and turn signals on cars.
Whether his envelope will have the same success that his uncle''s inventions have had is a question that Chereton says remains open.
"Whether it''s well worth it has yet to be determined," admits Chereton, who concurs with many inventors that marketing is crucial. "It''s expensive and time consuming and you need to get your hands dirty and do the research. A hundred years ago if you built a better mouse trap the world beat a path to your door, now you have to build a better mouse trap company."
Inventor of Word Games Carmel Valley
No matter how much communication becomes further reduced to digital information passed across video screens and phone lines, Carmel Valley game inventor Bruce Sterten knows that nothing can ever fully replace the pleasure of people sitting around sharing words and ideas.
As the inventor of numerous, highly successful word games, Sterten has created a lucrative career building on the old-fashioned virtues of one-on-one communication and a love of language.
"People like to interrelate eye to eye as opposed to through a computer," notes Sterten, whose word games include "Taboo," "Rapid Recall," and "25 Words Or Less" among others.
Ironically, Sterten got his start in game design as a writer and producer of TV game shows, an experience that translated well when he made the move to board games. The key to his success, says Sterten, is simplicity.
"A game has to be perceived as playable by the average person," explains Sterten, whose word games are structured similarly to "Charades," where one player tries to get the other players to guess a particular word or phrase using other verbal or word clues.
"The secret is to create a game that allows the player to feel they''re in control and they''re not intimidated by the rules or complexity of the game. It''s been my experience that the best game ideas are always the simplest, where someone can look and say ''Why didn''t I think of that?''"
While Sterten''s games are protected under copyright and trademark law as opposed to patent law, many of the same elements that make for a successful invention apply to the creation of board games.
"The concept is the smallest entity in the quotient," Sterten notes. "Getting it in front of a company is the largest. Selling the game is a hundred times more difficult than I ever imagined. Getting the doors opened to you is almost impossible for the average inventor but once you have a hit the doors swing wide."
Sterten insists that his successes can be matched by anyone and that no special aptitude or background in necessary.
"I was never in the hard and fast world of inventing mechanical things but I was always involved in fantasy play as a kid and loved puzzles," says Sterten. "I liked to turn things on their side and look at them differently, and you have to do that in the creative process.
"You have to bring your own creative instincts into play and bring something new to the field," adds Sterten. "There''s a natural process to invent something similar but those ideas you throw out. You need to know the marketplace and with that knowledge you don''t make the mistake of new inventors of creating someone else''s mousetrap."
Sterten''s game designs often start with nothing more complex than a pencil and note pad and the burning of the midnight oil in order to come up with new ideas for word play. Unlike many inventors who require a major manufacturer and extensive test marketing, Sterten relies on family and friends to test out his games, although it can take several years before a game finally reaches the mass market.
"Games get sold by word of mouth regardless of the advertising dollars, and if it doesn''t play well it won''t have repeat business," says Sterten. "I''ll test my idea with family and friends and groups of couples who like games. We''ll sit around the kitchen table and play and if they don''t like the game I''ll make changes and if it just doesn''t work I can it and move on."
Rosalie and Doug Brown
Inventors of Outdoor Toys for Kids Monterey
It''s a Nintendo world out there, which is all the more reason, and opportunity, say local inventors Rosalie and Doug Brown, to invent new games to take advantage of children''s need and desire for physical activity.
"When I worked with emotionally disturbed children I discovered a great tendency in dysfunctional families to have less active children sitting around watching TV," says Rosalie Brown, who feels her masters degree in family psychology has given her special insight into developing toys that help kids interact more.
"Electronics have an addictive effect, and one of our strongest missions has been to keep a vision of fun and create an opportunity for kids to get outside to use their bodies and challenge themselves physically."
In contrast to the image of the inventor as a solitary figure looking for inspiration to strike, at Blue Leaf Design in Monterey''s Ryan Ranch, new ideas come through a cooperative effort relying on everyone''s background and specialized knowledge.
"Once our design team is assembled and we begin designing toys, we sit around in brain-storming sessions," says Rosalie. "I discovered I was a full contributor to concept development using my knowledge of childhood cognitive development.
"I''m working with men in an industry dominated by men," she adds, "and what I''m trying to do is put more of a feminine view on toys, to make sure we make toys that girls like too. The challenges begin at the concept level to come up with technical solutions. My contribution is the ability to close my eyes and say what kids have fun doing and how that can be transformed into a new activity."
Among the patented toys Blue Leaf has designed is a rainbow-colored spinner that uses a rotating wagon-wheel design with spokes that kids must jump over, a variation of sorts on jump rope.
The spinner uses a computer driven motor that allows the players to vary the rate at which the spokes rotate; and the Browns also incorporated a programmable chip into the device to create a range of sounds from cheering and clapping to consolation moans to help encourage the children.
Blue Leaf also holds a patent for a modular play/tent set using a patented spring-form design that allows the tents to instantly pop into shape.
Blue Leaf Design started in business in 1992 as a contract design firm specializing in the outdoor back-packing industry. The Browns designed tents and backpacks for companies like North Face, and eventually went into manufacturing their own products.
One of their most successful patents is for a back-pack type cooler with a separate ice container, a pyramidal design to rest bottles or cans around the ice, and a plastic compartment with one shelf and cooling ports to allow cool air to come down and keep the food fresh.
"The concept came when Rosalie and I were on a camping trip and saw a lot of people carrying lots of coolers over long, rough terrain," says Doug. "It looked uncomfortable and in thinking back on our experience designing outdoor gear we came up with putting a cooler on a pack.
Doug and Rosalie concede that despite their successes, a patent can be a mixed blessing. Any patent holder, they warn, must know how to market their invention and be willing to defend it if there is to be any kind of payoff.
"Some inventors get so zeroed in on patenting that unless they have a concrete marketing distribution plan they are wasting time and money," says Rosalie. "You have to look at how likely it is you''ll enter into mass distribution in a way that you''ll fully benefit from the patent."
"Sometimes a product doesn''t have enough to make it patentable," adds Doug, "and once you have a patent the onus is on you to defend it. Litigation can cost a minimum of $1 million if someone infringes on it. You have to ask if you stand to earn enough to defend the patent in litigation, and many times the answer is no." cw