Where are the Illinois ideas?
Invention could be the ticket to economic recovery
More people with ideas are checking in at the Capitol Complex these days, but the ideas Patrick McGuckin and his associates chart are not legislative initiatives.
McGuckin, director of communications at the Illinois State Library, says the library's campaign to promote its Patent and Trademark Depository Library is generating considerable interest from area inventors. The PTDL served nearly twice the number of visitors from March through September 2003 as it did during the same seven-month period last year, McGuckin says.
The PTDL, a reference to patents registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Va., is an essential starting point for Illinoisans with ideas for products.
And the need for ideas couldn't be greater. Ideas drive invention and entrepreneurship are the fuel that drives the American economy. Right now, the economy -- especially the jobs market -- needs a spark. Thirty-four states, including Illinois, have fewer people working today than since the start of the last recession in March 2001; nationally, 2.6 million jobs have been lost during that period, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C.
Behind the grim employment figures, however, may lie opportunity. Corporate buyouts have left some people with cash to start their own businesses, possibly marketing new products or ideas. In a downturn, according to an Oct. 22 story by Associated Press business writer Joyce Rosenberg, money for inventions and new business actually goes further. All those startup costs are lower.
Longtime Springfield residents Ronald Earley and Charles "Chuck" Kirchner have some insights on that process.
"You can't have the soup until you get a spoon," Earley says, speaking of getting an invention to the marketplace. "You can't have a spoon until you get the soup." Kirchner sums up the invention-to-market journey briefly: "It's a very difficult process."
Earley is an inventor who also has extensive experience in marketing -- whether the products stem from his own ideas or from the inspirations of others. Kirchner is not an inventor, but he and Earley were associated, during the 1980s, in a Springfield firm called Inventech. They established it to help inventors patent and market their ideas.
Inventech itself did not survive in the marketplace, but it attracted a lot of attention. (The Springfield venture was not connected to Invent-Tech Invention Technologies Inc., currently doing business from Coral Gables, Florida.) Earley describes his firm as an all-in-one invention center, helping inventors with patent applications, marketing studies and potential manufacturers. Kirchner says, "We must have had a file cabinet with a couple of hundred inventions."
As they catalog the obstacles to moving a great idea from inspiration to store shelves, Earley and Kirchner both mention corporate chicanery and bad legal advice before becoming more specific. "An invention has to be evaluated on need, practicality and cost," Earley says. Kirchner notes that there are not many patent lawyers in central Illinois. "Most inventions," Earley says, "require a manufacturer." He casts back to his Inventech days: "You could get the product made, you could get it advertised, but you couldn't get it to the next step."
Springfield residents and their neighbors in surrounding communities have nonetheless patented a lot of ideas over the decades. Abraham Lincoln registered a device for lifting steamboats over shoals and sandbars. A friend of Kirchner's once was working on a liquid crystal display system for data. Kirchner's recollection is that somehow the man still didn't participate in the LCD boom, one of the really hot areas in current electronics applications.
But Charles Herbert Spaulding, general superintendent of City Water, Light and Power in the 1930s, invented the Spaulding Precipitator for large-scale water purification, and it came to be used very widely. More recently, Springfield inventor Percy Roscetti devised a new purifier for the air in shaft coal mines. His uncle, a miner, had died at age 47 of black lung disease. Roscetti's breakthrough was using water mist as a filter instead of a dry filter element that would need replacing. The Hurricane Scrubber, patented in 1957 and developed with the help of the Peabody Coal Co., was just the right device when the U.S. Congress mandated stricter air standards in mines. By the time that happened, Roscetti's 17-year patent had expired.
His story has a plot that is familiar to Earley and Kirchner.
Earley has three patents of his own. Among the products he has created and brought to market are a cane with a built-in light for persons with handicaps or infirmities, and Weather Guard, an insulating roof for mobile homes. He and his associates at Inventech got a local inventor's instant tea concentrate all the way to multi-state sales in supermarkets after the lady had worked on her idea for 16 years.
SweetTea and its unsweetened companion, TruTea, were made in Springfield by the MEGA-T Co. Persons in the food marketing industry advised that it was too small for direct sales to supermarkets. Brokers and wholesalers were needed. Among other things, they were needed "to make sure we didn't end up in the pantyhose section," Earley says. "You can get an idea," he says, "but the idea costs." MEGA-T applied to the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs for funds to increase production, but was chronically under-financed and eventually closed down.
So when Earley retired recently, it was from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, not Inventech. He had been the Illinois EPA's print shop supervisor. Earley has a versatile outlook on life that is quite different from the stereotype of the single-minded inventor. A former Marine who learned how to fence while in uniform, he keeps a rack of foils on a wall in his home. He is the author of an unpublished mystery novel. He is on the Board of Trustees of the U.S. Concert Corp., which arranges performances of the concert bands from the armed services.
Kirchner emphasizes that he has never retired. He was a consultant for the former state Department of Commerce and Community Affairs, now the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. Kirchner describes his office within the agency as "a sort of R & D unit." It created new business programs, or business incubators, and developed new business financing. A native of Havana, Ill., he earned a degree in architecture and an MBA from the University of Illinois and was the Springfield City Coordinator. Now, he owns and operates Charles Kirchner & Associates, a Springfield firm that packages grant applications and manages statewide associations.
The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity continues to offer programs to assist startup businesses, and both men see places for new ideas.
Kirchner thinks that a promising area for U.S. business is medical products, particularly ones that use electronics. "We've got a Silicon Valley over at the University of Illinois," he says. The university's quarterly magazine, Illinois Business Perspectives, in its Fall 2003 issue, reported, "In the last few years, the University, recognizing that it is an 'idea factory,' has stepped up its efforts to license and commercialize more of the discoveries being made on campus."
Kirchner thinks that tourism services are a growth industry, too.
Earley sees potential for marketing new products in outlets like cable television's QVC Channel and Internet Web sites. He thinks that they cut out those expensive middlemen. For inventors with products just entering the marketplace, he says direct sellers represent a "key distributing point."
He still has ideas, too, like self-generating streetlights. They might, he thinks, operate from little vaned wheels something like miniature windmills, oscillated by passing automobiles, thus turning generators. Solar cells would provide back-up power. There is also his idea for a sonic laser device to shut off the flow of gasoline in automobiles the police are pursuing.
Drinking coffee with me, he has another idea. It is prompted by a woman at a nearby table. "Why couldn't you put a little light in the top flap of a purse?" he asks.
First the idea, then the dream.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Depository Library is located at the Illinois State Library at 300 S. 2nd St. in Springfield. Hours are 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri. Because patent search is time consuming, users are encouraged to discuss their research needs with a depository staff member. Appointments may be made for training by calling 217-782-5659. (Illinois also has a second PTDL at the Chicago Public Library.)