Tag Archives: invention

The Value of Prototyping in Research and Development

The Value of Prototyping in Research and Development

Last week I was the innovation keynote speaker for the James Hardie Research and Development Conference for their scientists and engineers. I normally don’t show anyone my first prototype, but I wanted to show how simple prototyping can be, and the value of prototyping in research and development.


A prototype is an original model of something from which other forms are developed. Depending on how complex the prototype is, it can test a new concept, or in my case, it served as a visual sample that designers could use to make a final product.


When I first came up with my idea for a wrist water bottle, I tried to explain the concept to people, and most just couldn’t visualize it. They were picturing a regular water bottle strapped to your wrist. This is because we tend to see what we already know. Scientists refer to this as “structured imagination”. In other words, when we try to imagine something new and unique, our brains are still stuck in existing concepts and ideas. That’s why everyone pictured a regular, existing water bottle strapped to the wrist. Most people simply cannot picture a brand new concept. And you don’t want them to imagine the wrong concept. This goes for products, websites, scripts, books, and any other creative endeavors. No one else is going to imagine exactly what you imagine in your mind.


I knew if I was going to explain what it was I would have to make a prototype model so it would be obvious. A first prototype doesn’t have to actually work, so it can be made of anything. I went to the art supply store and bought a variety of supplies to work with like clay, string, popsicle sticks, paper clips, styrofoam, ribbons, etc. 


The first wrist water bottle design was made of clay, ribbon and an off-the-shelf cap. 





It was bulky and goofy-looking, but once people saw it they were instantly able to visualize the concept. It was also the first and only prototype I made before taking the clay model to a mold maker. Making the prototype enabled me to go from an abstract idea in my head, to a physical item I could hold in my hands. It was also helpful to be able to see where the flaws were instantly as opposed to guessing about them.


One of the flaws I wouldn’t have guessed was in the weight of the bottle when filled with water. By putting the heavy clay prototype on my wrist, I realized it would have to be a little smaller since it would be filled with water. It had to be just the right size. Not so big that it would be top-heavy, and not too small, so you would get enough water for a normal run.


The mold maker was also better able to see the concept and instantly figure out where the flaws were and how to fix them. The same goes for designing a website, marketing materials, video games, or anything else that will be handed off to a designer to make a final product. The TV and film industry uses storyboarding in order to show visually what the entire product will look like. In fact, we did a storyboard for the TV commercial we used for the wrist water bottle before we shot it.


My main goal as the innovation keynote speaker was to prove to the scientists and engineers that prototyping didn’t have to be complicated, time-consuming, risky or expensive.


One valuable thing about prototyping is that you get instant feedback. When I showed people my clay prototype, people had lots of questions. By actually seeing something that would resemble the final product, they were able to see things I hadn’t thought of. Having a good prototype allows you to make changes before you invest a lot of money in a product. So prototyping is actually less risky.


Prototypes don’t have to be expensive. The one and only prototype I had cost less than $10. If you’re just making a prototype to show others a general idea of what it will look like, it can be made out of materials from an art store, like I used. A working prototype is more expensive, but can be done using 3D printing, fabrication and off the shelf parts, like I did with the cap. It will still be less expensive going this route first before investing a lot of money in a final product. If you find out something doesn’t work you can easily fix it in this stage. 


The process with the wrist water bottle went through several stages of design and change before the final finished product, even though I did get the product on the market when it was in the beginning stages of design and packaging. Software companies do this all the time with version 1.0, 2.0, etc. Here is the final retail version, which has now sold almost a million units around the world:


wrist water bottles

wrist water bottles


The basic design of the bottles and the caps didn’t change, but the material of the bottles and the bands did change. The original bands were made out of terry cloth. They were soft, but didn’t stay on very well and were thick and bulky, which made threading them through the loops difficult. 


The idea for the new bands came from the medical industry. One of the most important concepts about innovation is that you should always be looking to get ideas from other industries. By looking in the medical industry I was able to find a material called vel-stretch that was thinner and more durable. It’s easy to thread them through the bottle loops and they fit more snugly than the terry cloth. 


I was happy when several scientists and engineers came up to me after the speech and said they were now excited about prototyping. They were finally convinced that it wasn’t as complicated or risky as they thought. My journey through the invention process itself was long and difficult, but the prototyping part was rather quick and easy, and was the least expensive part of all.

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Inventor of Scotch Tape – Richard Gurley Drew

Inventor of Scotch Tape – Richard Gurley Drew

As a creativity keynote speaker, one of the things I talk about is serendipity, or finding something valuable that you’re not looking for. Scotch brand tape was one of those serendipitous ideas that was invented to solve one problem and ended up solving many more.


One way many inventors come up with ideas for inventions is by seeing a problem that needs solving. Usually it’s your own problem, but in the case of Richard Gurley Drew, inventor of scotch tape, it was a problem bodyshop owners had.


He had dropped out of college where he had been studying engineering and gotten a job at the 3M company, when he spotted a problem that would change the trajectory of his career.


Cars with two-tone paint were popular in the 1920’s, but it wasn’t a very easy job for the people who painted them. Richard was making his rounds delivering sandpaper samples to bodyshops when he overheard the guys painting those two-tone cars complain about the process. They would paint the car, then cover the painted part by gluing newspapers to part of it or using tape. But the tape didn’t work very well.


With a limited knowledge of chemistry, and an enormous amount of hutzpah, he promised the painters he would invent a type of tape that would help solve their problem.


He set out experimenting with different types of oils, resins and glues. Like all inventions, there were a lot of failures. Either the adhesive was too strong or not strong enough. Eventually he came up with a tape that would adhere strongly and strip off easily.


About that time Dupont had invented cellophane, which was used to package baked goods, but they didn’t have an effective way to seal the bags. Drew thought he could figure out a way to make the tape so it would seal the cellophane bags seamlessly. It wasn’t as easy as he thought, and by the time he finally got the tape to work, Dupont had already started using a self-sealing material.


It was now the first full year of the Great Depression, which was the worse time possible for a company to be launching a new, untested product. But serendipity was once again at play because Scotch tape turned out to have many valuable uses to people who were struggling during the Depression. The tape helped them prolong the life of items they couldn’t afford to replace, like books whose pages were torn, window curtains with tears, or even torn clothing.


Though customers loved the product, they complained about the tape disappearing into the roll once it was used. It was hard to find the end of the tape. So another 3M employee invented a solution to that problem… the tape dispenser.


Sales manager John Borden experimented with it for about 18 months and finally came up with a snail-shaped tape dispenser that had a built-in cutter blade, so each tape use was perfectly cut and ready for the next one. That shape hasn’t changed much since it’s invention in 1939.


This is a good example of inventing an add on product for a particular product or line of products. This alone can generate an enormous amount of money for a company.


While other companies were laying off employees during the Great Depression, 3M was one of the few in the world that didn’t. All thanks to the success of a serendipitous invention and an inventor who saw opportunity where others only saw a problem.


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Inventor of Coston Flares

Inventor of Coston Flares

If inventors know one thing it’s how to make lemons out of lemonade. History is full of stories about inventors who have succeeded despite failure and tragedy, and inventor Martha Coston dealt with both.


She married a man, Benjamin Coston, a scientist who was already an inventor who was just starting to make a name for himself. He worked for the Navy in a pyrotechnic lab. Like many inventors, his inventions were stolen and he was never compensated for them. The risk of working with dangerous chemicals finally got the best of him and he died at the age of 26, leaving behind a young wife and 4 children. Soon afterwards Martha lost her youngest son and her mother.


Pretty soon all of the money she had left was gone and things were starting to look very grim. It was then that she started looking through her husband’s work to see if there were any finished ideas that he hadn’t patented yet. She didn’t find any that were finished, but she found one that sounded promising. It was a system of maritime signaling flares.


The original flares that her husband came up with didn’t work, but Martha was convinced the basic idea was there and that she could improve on them. What she needed were flares that were bright enough and lasted long enough to be used for signaling over great distances. Her husband didn’t leave any notes about how to mix the chemical compounds that would create the brightness, and Martha didn’t have a background in chemical engineering. So she would basically have to start from scratch to figure out how to make them work.


For the years she was working on the invention she and her children stayed with friends. She first wanted to find out if the idea was even worth pursuing, so she contacted some people she knew in the Navy.


The first attempt at the flares was a failure since the brightness was too weak. But she kept on trying. She also only had two of the colors she needed and couldn’t figure out how to make the third one. But one night she was watching a fireworks display and had an idea. Maybe the pyrotechnics company could make the third color. She contacted them and started working with them.


She kept improving on the system, and eventually secured a manufacturer to make them. After many tests, she finally had the product at a point where the Navy was ready to give her a contract to supply them with a starting order of 3,000. She was granted a patent on the “Pyrotechnic Night Signals” in 1859. It was basically the same formula that is used in highway flares today.


The Navy tested them for the next two years under many different kinds of situations and were pleased with the results. The flares proved to be invaluable during the Civil War, and Martha sold over a million of them to the Navy. Eventually the Coast Guard would also use them in their search and rescue operations.


After a few improvement changes, and a new patent, she also sold them to maritime insurance companies and yacht clubs. As an inventor you will probably find new ways to market your products and new industries to sell them to as you get out in the trenches and start selling. This is what Martha did as she learned that there were many more applications than she had imagined.


The US government finally bought the rights to her patent for $20,000, and she then traveled to Europe to pitch the idea to governments there.


Martha Coston fought to be recognized and respected as a woman in a man’s world of inventing and manufacturing. She achieved success after much hard work and sacrifice, and went on to write her autobiography as encouragement to women inventors not to give up. Here is an excerpt from her book:


“In this attempt to recount my life and some of the varied experiences attendant upon my efforts to per perpetuate the name of my beloved husband and to support my children and myself, I am actuated by no idle vanity, nor yet the wish to pose as a writer, but by the honest desire to encourage those of my own sex who, stranded upon the world with little ones looking to them for bread, may feel, not despair but courage rise in their hearts; confident that with integrity, energy, and perseverance they need no extraordinary talents to gain success and a place among the world’s bread winners.”


Martha Coston never gave up her focus in seeing her invention, which was started by her husband, become a success, and her dedication to making a better life for her and her children. Martha Coston is a definite role model for women inventors and women business owners!




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Bra Inventor and Art Patron Caresse Crosby

Bra Inventor and Art Patron Caresse Crosby

Caresse Crosby lived the life of an upper class debutante in New York and Connecticut growing up. One night while she was dressing to go out to another ball, she put on her customary whalebone corset under her evening gown. Disappointed in the way it made her dress look, she called her maid to help her fashion another garment to wear underneath.


She stitched together two handkerchiefs which accented her bustline, instead of the clunky corset women were wearing.


At the ball she was mobbed by women intrigued by her new invention. When a stranger offered her a dollar for one, she realized she might have a valuable product on her hands and she set out to patent it.


Her patent claims stressed that it didn’t interfere with evening gowns and was suitable for a variety of different customers. It also stressed the versatility of uses from evening wear to tennis wear. The patent and trademark office granted her a patent. She called it the Backless Brassiere.


She decided to manufacture the product herself and formed the Fashion Form Brassiere Company where she hired women to sew the garments. At the request of her new husband, who had a very generous trust fund, she closed the shop and sold the patent to the Warner Brothers Corset Company for $1500. They went on to make over $15 million on the product throughout the years. The “crosby” bra that Caresse had manufactured was manufactured and sold by Warner Brothers for a while, but the style never caught on and it was discontinued.


Caresse and her new husband, Harry Crosby, went on to live an adventurous and exciting life, traveling around the world in a whirlwind of art and decadence. They became publishers and art patrons who rubbed elbows with the likes of Dorothy Parker and Salvadore Dali.


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Women Inventors – Marie Van Brittan Brown

Women Inventors – Marie Van Brittan Brown

In keeping with Women’s History Month, I wanted to highlight women inventors who exemplify the phrase “Necessity is the Mother of Invention”. Marie Van Brittan Brown is one of those inventors.


Marie was a nurse who didn’t keep regular hours. While her husband, Albert, was at work, she was often home alone for hours at a time. Her neighborhood in Jamaica, Queens, New York was becoming more dangerous, and she wanted to find a way to make her feel safer.


One thing that bothered her was having to open the door to find out who was there.  So, she worked with her husband to devise a series of four peepholes in the door to show different heights of visitors, so she wouldn’t have to open the door. The peephole at the top showed a tall person and the one at the bottom would show if it was a child at the door.


They kept a TV monitor in their bedroom, which had a two way microphone so they could communicate with visitors. The wireless system fed images to the TV monitor. There was even a button that could be pushed in case the home owner felt threatened, or another one that could be pushed that would let a friend in.


Today, buildings everywhere are equipped with this technology, but at the time nothing like it existed. She and Albert applied for and received a patent on their home security device in 1969. It has since been referenced in future patent searches. And there have been many.


Since then the home security business has skyrocketed. With rising crime rates, closed circuit security cameras are becoming much more popular. But it all started with the “necessity” of one woman’s feeling of safety and security to get the ball rolling. Home owners everywhere can rest easier, thanks to this woman inventor.

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Innovators Embrace Uncertainty

Innovators Embrace Uncertainty

Uncertainty isn’t a comfortable place. In fact, it triggers a flight or fight response in the amygdala part of the brain. And most people choose flight. But innovators embrace uncertainty because we venture into uncharted territory every day.


I was talking to a friend who made the decision to move to another state. She’s lived in the same place, in the same neighborhood, with the same friends, and the same job for 25 years. But after losing the job that seemed so stable, she was thrown a curve ball, and knew she was going to be forced to leave.


Most people don’t change unless they are literally forced to. And it usually takes something drastic to make them change. My friend said she is actually glad she lost the job and was forced to move, because otherwise she would have lingered in a bad situation forever. Sound familiar?


We are creatures of habit and tend to get into our comfortable routines. This is why ideas get stale. Innovation is all about getting out of those comfortable routines and embracing uncertainty, wherever it takes you. Whether it’s a new invention, new business idea, or to another state. If you want to be innovative, you have to shake things up constantly and willingly jump into the unknown with your mind and heart wide open.


When I do an innovation keynote speech, I usually drag people on stage to play some improv games. I have no idea what direction they’ll go in, and neither do they. But some brave volunteers like the challenge of uncertainty. They embrace it and welcome the chance to jump off the cliff.


That really is what innovation is about, because you have no idea if your ideas will be good or if anyone will like them. You have no idea if a new idea will sell or not. But you have to become comfortable with the uncomfortable.


I know my friend is anxious about leaving the known for the unknown. But is also excited about the possibilities. That’s it! Instead of fearing the unknown, embrace the possibilities… every day.


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Inventor’s Spotlight – Woman Inventor – Margaret Knight

Inventor’s Spotlight – Woman Inventor – Margaret Knight

I’ll never forget the day I got a call from someone who was shocked that a woman had invented the wrist water bottle. We should be so far beyond that in our society, but the fact that fewer than 15% of all patents are issued to women proves that we still have a long way to go. I can only imagine the scrutiny Margaret Knight must have gone through in 1871 when she invented the paper bag machine, which churned out flat-bottomed, foldable paper bags.

Read More…

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America Invents Act

America Invents Act

Here is the press release from the White House regarding the America Invents Act:


President Obama Signs America Invents Act, Overhauling the Patent System to Stimulate Economic Growth, and Announces New Steps to Help Entrepreneurs Create Jobs


Today, at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, President Obama signed the America Invents Act, historic patent reform legislation that will help American entrepreneurs and businesses bring their inventions to market sooner, creating new businesses and new jobs. In addition, the President announced additional steps that will help convert the ideas from America’s universities and research labs into new products, expanding our economy and creating 21st century jobs.


“I am pleased to sign the America Invents Act. This much-needed reform will speed up the patent process so that innovators and entrepreneurs can turn a new invention into a business as quickly as possible,” said President Obama. “I’m also announcing even more steps today that will help bring these inventions to market faster and create jobs. Here in America, our creativity has always set us apart, and in order to continue to grow our economy, we need to encourage that spirit wherever we find it.”


Passed with the President’s consistent leadership and strong bipartisan support, the America Invents Act represents the most significant reform of the Patent Act since 1952. It will give a boost to American companies and inventors who have suffered costly delays and unnecessary litigation, and let them focus instead on innovation and job creation. These reforms were also a key recommendation of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, which has been a strong advocate for patent reform as a way to support job creation and strengthen America’s competitiveness in the global economy.


President Obama was joined at the signing by Acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank, US Patent and Trademark Office Director David Kappos, Ellen Kullman, CEO of DuPont and a Member of the President’s Jobs Council, John Lechleiter, CEO of Eli Lilly, as well as students from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Members of Congress who have been instrumental in passing the bill, and inventors and small business owners who will benefit from this reform.


Key Elements of America Invents Act


The America Invents Act was passed with the President’s strong leadership to move this bill forward, after nearly a decade of legislative efforts. It reflects strong bipartisan cooperation and Congress working together on behalf of American innovation.


Many key industries in which the U.S. leads, such as biotechnology, medical devices, and advanced manufacturing, depend on a strong and healthy intellectual property system. The America Invents Act will help businesses, inventors, and entrepreneurs in five immediate ways:


* A fast track option for Patent Processing within 12 Months: Instead of an average wait time of almost three years, the Patent and Trademark Office will be able to offer startups growing companies an opportunity to have important patents reviewed in one-third the time – with a new fast track option that has a guaranteed 12-month turnaround. Patent ownership is a critical factor venture capital companies consider when investing in entrepreneurs hoping to grow their business.

* Reducing the current patent backlog: Under the Obama Administration, the patent backlog has already been reduced from over 750,000 patent applications to 680,000, despite a 4% increase in filings. The additional resources provided in the law will allow the Patent and Trademark Office to continue to combat the backlog of nearly 700,000 patent applications and will significantly reduce wait times.

* Reducing litigation: The Patent and Trademark Office will offer entrepreneurs new ways to avoid litigation regarding patent validity, at costs significantly less expensive than going to court.

* Increasingpatent quality: The Patent and Trademark Office has re-engineered its quality management processes to increase the quality of the examinations and has issued guidelines that clarify and tighten its standards for the issuance of patents. The legislation gives the USPTO additional tools and resources to further improve patent quality, and allows patent challenges to be resolved in-house through expedited post-grant processes.

* Increasing the ability of American Inventors to protect their IP abroad: The new law will harmonize the American patent process with the rest of the world to make it more efficient and predictable, and make it easier for entrepreneurs to simultaneously market products in the U.S. and for exporting abroad. The Patent and Trademark Office has also expanded work-sharing with other patent offices around the world to increase efficiency and speed patent processing for applicants seeking protection in multiple jurisdictions.


Additional Initiatives Announced Today to Move Ideas from Lab to Market


Launch of new National Institutes of Health (NIH) center to assist biotech entrepreneurs: To help industry shorten the time needed and reduce costs for the development of new drugs and diagnostics, the NIH plans to establish a new National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS). NCATS aims to help biomedical entrepreneurs by identifying barriers to progress and providing science-based solutions to reduce costs and the time required to develop new drugs and diagnostics. For example, as one of its initial activities, NCATS will partner with DARPA to support development of a chip to screen for safe and effective drugs far more swiftly and efficiently than current methods.


Development of a National Bioeconomy Blueprint: By January 2012, the Administration will develop a Bioeconomy Blueprint detailing Administration-wide steps to harness biological research innovations to address national challenges in health, food, energy, and the environment. Biological research lays the foundation of a significant portion of our economy. By better leveraging our national investments in biological research and development the Administration will grow the jobs of the future and improve the lives of all Americans. The Blueprint will focus on reforms to speed up commercialization and open new markets, strategic R&D investments to accelerate innovation, regulatory reforms to reduce unnecessary burdens on innovators, enhanced workforce training to develop the next generation of scientists and engineers, and the development of public-private partnerships.


University Presidents Commit to Commercialization Initiative: In coordination with the Administration, the Association of American Universities, and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, 135 university leaders committed to working more closely with industry, investors, and agencies to bolster entrepreneurship, encourage university-industry collaboration, and enhance economic development. Today, over 40 universities are answering the President’s call to expand their commercialization programs and goals. These institutions include The Georgia Institute of Technology, which has outlined its expanded initiatives, as well as universities like the University of Virginia and Carnegie Mellon University, which are announcing plans today.


Coulter Foundation and NSF Launch a University Commercialization Prize with AAAS: This prize competition will be used to identify and promote incentives to adopt best practices that improve university commercialization efforts. Supported by $400,000 in funding from the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation and NSF, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) will lead the design and implementation of the prize in coordination with a diverse array of partner agencies, foundations, and organizations.


Developing University Endowments Focused on Lab to Market Innovations: Today, the Coulter Foundation is announcing that they have selected four new universities to participate in their Translational Research Partnership program — Johns Hopkins University, University of Louisville, University of Missouri and University of Pittsburgh. As part of the program, each university will create a $20 million endowment to foster research collaboration between biomedical engineers and clinicians, with the goal of developing new technologies to improve patient care and human health. Translational research moves new ideas and discoveries from university laboratories to new products and services that directly impact human health, often by creating startups or by partnering with established businesses.


New Tools and License Agreements for Start-Ups and Small Businesses: The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Technology Transfer has developed new agreements for start-up companies obtain licenses for early-stage biomedical inventions developed by intramural researchers at NIH or FDA. Companies that are less than 5 years old and have fewer than 50 employees will be eligible to use the new, short-term exclusive Start-Up Evaluation License Agreement and the new Start-Up Commercial License Agreement. These agreements allow a start-up company to take ideas sitting on the shelf, and attract additional investments to develop these NIH and FDA inventions into life-saving products.


New Help for Small Businesses: In addition, the USPTO, in collaboration with NSF and SBA, will pilot a program to assist SBIR grant recipients in taking advantage of the USPTO’s small business programs and resources. The USPTO pilot will provide comprehensive IP support to, initially, 100 NSF SBIR grant recipients to take advantage of accelerated examination and benefits stemming from the America Invents Act and will engage external stakeholders to provide pro bono or low cost IP services to awardees.

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