Drew Ann Long saw a problem and fixed it.
The Alabaster mom was frustrated when her trips to the store included an entourage of helpers and gear for her special needs child, Caroline. Like thousands of other special needs people, Caroline had grown too big for traditional shopping buggies. When mother and daughter perused food aisles, someone either accompanied to assist Caroline, or Long purchased only items she could carry without having to commandeer a grocery cart and wheelchair-bound daughter. Not anymore, not since Long invented “Caroline’s Cart, ” now sold in 30 states.
“When Caroline was a baby, she could easily fit into a regular shopping cart, ” says Long. “But as she grew older, she grew too big.” A regular buggy would not hold her. Mom saw a need and fixed it, with a cart especially designed for larger people with special needs. The U.S. Patent Office agreed.
Long is one of hundreds of Alabamians who hold a recent patent.
Some work from large corporations, universities or research centers. But others build from kitchen tables – turned labs. Long is in good company.
“In the private sector, many inventor-entrepreneurs are stay-at-home moms and housewives, ” says New York City patent attorney Ted Weisz. “They are the ones who come up with new ideas we use every day.” The Madison Avenue lawyer adds, “Retired people and doctors also make good inventors and are granted patents.”
Alabamians hold patents from carpenter bee traps to anthrax vaccines. We have created everything from deer antler scents and weed cutters to the ever popular “detoxified pneumococcal neuraminidase and uses thereof, ” whatever that is.
Most patents are issued to corporations, universities or research labs rather than individuals and Alabama is no exception. Many cancer treatments, offshore drilling devices, laser beam shooters, and more originated right here, in places like Auburn University.
Dr. Kenny Brock, professor in Auburn’s Veterinary Medicine School’s Department of Pathobiology, discovered a vaccine for anthrax contamination. His training in animal health helped him develop a procedure to save human lives. “It works like a snakebite treatment, ” Brock says about his anthrax remedy. “It isn’t on the market yet but could be used for homeland security applications.” Auburn University holds the patent.
But homemade entrepreneurs walk among us too. Ralph Waldo Emerson once charged, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” We got the trap. Bring on the mouse.
“Actually, applications for better mousetraps are filed every year, ” notes Mobile patent agent, Reginald Taylor. The University of South Alabama’s Office of Technology Transfer associate director works closely with the U.S.A. Mitchell Cancer Institute, but keeps a close eye on others in the game known as “patent pending.”
“Currently, golf club patents are huge nationwide, ” he notes. “Hunting and fishing gadgets are popular in Alabama, too, but increasingly more difficult to patent because chances are it’s already done.” Novelty means everything.
“The first thing we check is if this idea, product or process is really new, ” Taylor notes. “It’s probably not.” Most inventions today add to something already in place. For example, everybody has seen hair clips and bows but not like Connie Stewart’s.
“I was looking for a quick and easy way to put my hair up, ” says Stewart of her 2009 invention. “I saw a need for women like me who wanted something comfortable and easy to wear.” Her vision became Ponilox — “The only patented pivoting clip that flexes, to lock any hair type, thick or thin, ” – as seen on TV, available through her website, and embedded in the tresses of Hollywood stars.
“The Ponilox holds thick or thin hair quickly and easily, ” says Stewart, who lives in Scottsboro. “It flexes with your hair. We started with a prototype, and tested it on my friends. Today, after receiving our patent, we have an overseas company manufacturing it.”
Like their counterparts across the country, many Alabamians discovered that holding a patent is only the beginning. “It protects your idea, but offers nothing for marketing, manufacturing and business advice, ” adds patent attorney Michael Cesarano, of Feldman Gayle Intellectual Property Law in Miami. “Those costs can be thousands of dollars, which a patent pays zero.”
Grand Bay’s Doug Davis takes an AK-47 rifle and makes it better. His company, Davis Tactical Solutions, manufactures firearm modification kits as fast as he can.
“We have sold as many as 27 kits in a day, ” the U.S. Army reservist notes about his patented devices. “Meeting volume demand is my biggest issue.”
Among Davis’ inventions is a drop in loading system for the AK-47 rifle, enabling the weapon to be loaded with either hand. “We’ve received inquiries for orders from very big companies but at present I can’t make the application fast enough for their demands.”
Teresa Kelly has a similar story. “I have a patent for deer antler, turkey claw and bass hat clips, ” says the Slocomb resident. “We placed them in local stores around Dothan and sold over a thousand but it got to be too much, trying to keep up with demand.”
Kelly no longer makes her ornamental hat accessories, which slide over a cap’s bill, with a paperclip like attachment. But her patent seeking advice mirrors that of every other inventor spoken to for this story. “Don’t go it alone.”
“My attorney was in Washington and wonderful, ” Kelly says. “Most of us know our products, but have no clue how to patent it or the process involved. Get a good patent attorney.”
Doug Davis concurs, adding, “Beware of con-men; there are many rip-offs out there; people will take your money and run.” Davis also cautions that when applying for a patent, all wording must be accurate. “The artwork and drawings have to be perfect.”
“It is an extremely grueling, very detailed process, even with an attorney, ” adds Caroline’s Cart creator Long, about the patent process. “I now know more about shopping carts than any one person should, ” she laughs.
Once filed with the U.S. Patent Office, the approval steps can take six months to three or more years, with no guarantee a patent will be awarded. Drawings, schematics, diagrams and exhaustive instructions must be provided. And if granted, what do you do with it?
Probably sell it, says Jerry Keef of Fort Payne, who invented the Comfort Belt Buckle. “Basically my belt buckle prevents a cut to the gut, ” Keef says. “It’s a ¾-inch buckle on a one-inch belt that fastens on the belt’s inside not outside.” Most belt buckles are bigger than the belt. When a man bends over, the buckle presses into his stomach, gut cutting it, or in extreme cases, rendering a second naval. Keef’s belt doesn’t do that.
“It is very comfortable, ” he says, “I wear mine all the time.”
But he’s only made a few of the stainless steel fasteners. Presently, Keef has no interest in mass producing his creation, but would rather sell the idea to a larger business. Most experts agree with his decision.
“I often suggest for my clients to sell the idea, not the product, ” notes Weisz. “Many inventors, though experts at their creations, have no marketing or business skills and get in trouble.” He notes that marketing and manufacturing costs of a half-million dollars are not unheard of.
The challenges are many in the patenting process but so are the awards. Mobile’s Lonnie Johnson holds 80 patents with 20 more pending. But he got rich creating a squirt toy. In 1992, Johnson invented the “Super Soaker Water Gun.” To date, it has generated over $1 billion in sales.
Why didn’t I think of that?
Emmett Burnett is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Satsuma.
text by Emmett Burnett • photos by Cary Norton