July 2006 - Inventors Beware

Reality Bites for Budding Inventor

By Paige Muller

“Cops” was America’s first big reality TV show. Others like “Last Comic Standing,” “The Contender,” “America’s Next Top Model” and “Next Food Network Star” have continued to whet the public’s appetite for reality shows that run the gamut of professions and individual talents.

American entrepreneurs and inventors are the latest group to get the Hollywood treatment on ABC’s reality show “American Inventor,” where the winner receives $1 million for the next great invention with wide consumer appeal.

But away from the TV cameras, what is the unedited reality of the thousands of struggling inventors who dare to dream of coming up with the next “It” consumer product?

This is the true story of Scott Zwolski, ERA’s 2004 Invention Showcase winner-unscripted.

Looking back, coming up with the idea was the easy part.

In the mid-1990s, Zwolski, a former rock musician, wanted to create speakers for home audio systems that produced great sound yet weren’t like the over-sized, “arena rock” models already on the market. Guided by the principle that “form follows function,” he developed a prototype of the “Speaker and Lamp Combination,” high-end audio speakers with an enclosed cabinet design that resembles a contemporary lamp. Manufactured as a set, this unique product offers 360-degree surround sound in a functional and stylish form that is compatible with any home or office interior design.

“Speaker and Lamp Combination” prototype.
Patented “Speaker and Lamp Combination.” Available in six designer colors.

There are a lot of unknowns when trying to develop and sell an idea or product. But even weekend tinkerers know that the first thing you have to do is protect your big idea from copycats.

Now, if this was an episode of “American Inventor,” the complicated and unglamorous patent protection process would be resolved during a commercial break. If only real life had a fast-forward button. Three years and two attorneys later, Zwolski was finally issued U.S. Patent #5,995,634 in November 1999.

In search of a buyer, Zwolski exhibited the “Speaker and Lamp Combination” prototype at the Chicago Design Show in October 2001. A high-end catalog company expressed interest but felt that changes were needed to make it more consumer-friendly and market-ready. Just as he began working on sketches for a new design, tragedy struck. A debilitating car accident set Zwolski back two years while he recovered.

Many people would have given up the hope of being a successful inventor at this point and thrown in the towel. “Thomas Edison once said that ‘Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up,’” says Zwolski. He debuted the new and improved version of the “Speaker and Lamp Combination” at ERA’s 2004 Invention Showcase in Las Vegas.

There, the first-time exhibitor joined more than 50 inventors from around the world on the tradeshow floor. His product generated favorable consumer buzz and went on to win one of the contest’s top awards, “Best Potential for Radio.” Buoyed by his success at the show, Zwolski decided to devote himself full-time to manufacturing his invention and getting it to market.

Still in search of a buyer, he came across a business card from an industry professional he’d met in Las Vegas and decided to contact them for marketing help. After a series of discussions, an agreement was signed and Zwolski sent the individual $15,000 to seal the deal.
They were never heard from again.

Manufactured as a set, the “Speaker and Lamp Combination” directs sound in a 360-degree range to offer true surround sound.

Zwolski contacted his local Better Business Bureau, state Attorney General Office and went so far as to hire a private attorney in an effort to recoup his money, without success. In 2002, the U.S. Patent Office estimated that inventors lost $200 million each year to so-called invention promotion scams.

Asked what he would tell this year’s Invention Showcase contestants, Zwolski recommends that they join an organization for inventors, such as the United Inventors Association. “It’s important to have the same level of knowledge as the people that you’ll be dealing with,” he says. To find a local group, check Inventor’s Digest and UIA’s web site at www.uiausa.com.

But Zwolski’s most important piece of advice is: “Don’t give up on your dreams. Believe in yourself and your product. Be open to other people’s advice and suggestions, but use caution.”

In a HomeOfficeMag.com article, inventing coach and consultant Jack Lander stated, “Inventors don’t realize it’s systematized. You can gain systematic knowledge and go out there like anything else in this world. If you just start out half-cocked and don’t pay attention to [learning the system], you’re likely to end up spending a lot of money and getting nowhere.”

All told, Zwolski has spent nine years trying to bring “Speaker and Lamp Combination” to the consumer market. He currently has a large inventory available and is in talks with two companies that have expressed interest in marketing his invention or buying the rights. Information about his product is available on his web site at www.lime

Million-dollar success stories are a rarity. For the most part, there are a series of steps that are necessary to get an invention successfully to market, and it doesn’t happen overnight or over the course of 10 episodes-unless you’re the lucky winner on “American Inventor.”
Almost everybody has an idea or an improvement. The only difference is that inventors do something with their idea. The true failure is to do nothing at all.

A Caveat Emptor to Every Inventor

Contracting for the services of an invention promotion firm or someone “in the know” to help bring your product to market is no different from making any other major business decision. Apply some common sense:

  • Ask for references. Request the names of three satisfied customers that you can talk to.
  • Investigate the company or individual before you make any commitment. Call the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office at (866) 767-3848, the Better Business Bureau, the consumer protection agency, and the attorney general in your state or city, and in the state or city where the company is headquartered or the individual does business. Use this information to determine whether the company or individual you’re considering doing business with has been subject to complaints or legal action.
  • Be very suspicious of any pay upfront “deals.” While there are very few legitimate companies that can help you, the legitimate ones don’t advertise and won’t seek money upfront. If you do decide to take this route, be extremely careful, be sure you’re getting real references (these companies have been known to offer fake ones), and get everything in writing. And have a USPTO registered patent attorney review the contract before handing over a dime.
  • Make sure your contract contains all the terms you agreed to-verbal and written-before you sign. Often the contract says one thing but the salesperson says something quite different. If possible, ask an attorney to review the agreement.

Want more information? Check out these resources:

  • U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (www.uspto.gov)
  • National Congress of Inventor Organizations (www.invention
  • United Inventors Association (www.uiausa.org)

Source: Federal Trade Commission

Paige H. Muller is ERA’s vice president, marketing communications. She can be reached at [email protected].


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