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Santa Cruz Sentinel
SANTA CRUZ — About 20 years after Lonna Speer, a local nurse, walked into the monthly meeting of the Santa Cruz Inventors Workshop and announced she was quitting her job to run her own niche company that manufactures and sells her invention, she is still in business and holding forth as the group’s most successful entrepreneur.
It hasn’t been easy, she said recently, noting that not only has she had to sue people for making cheap, fraudulent rip-offs, she just survived the worst sales year in 10 years.
Speer and her husband, Dennis, run Ferguson Safety Products from an office at the Old Sash Mill in Santa Cruz. Her invention is a smock that incarcerated psychiatrically disturbed people can safely wear when they are in acute suicidal crisis. Speer, who worked for years in the Water Street jail, saw that traditional jail garb often couldn’t be used with this population because it could be used as a ligature. Inmates throughout the country had to be stripped so they wouldn’t harm themselves.
After all this time, Speer remains one of the few local success stories of the group, joining George Low, a former Capitola resident who traveled the country for years in the 80s selling his commercial bagel slicer.
“It’s a much slower process than anyone could imagine, developing a new product,” Speer said, recalling how she brought her ideas to the inventors group to grapple with the realities of the market and the viability of inventions.
Speer made her first sale fairly quickly, she was constantly evolving the product as she learned more. Then, the hard work began, she said — educating potential customers about a completely new kind of product.
“Up until this time, there hadn’t been anything like this. People would ask, is that a straight jacket?’ ” No, she’d have to explain, it’s a substitute for clothes.
“The first couple years I hardly sold any at all. It took more than five years to gradually educate the corrections industry about it.”
Strained government budgets have hampered sales, Speer said, noting that she still has other ideas to develop.
Low, who now lives in Reno, came to the group with his idea for a commercial bagel slicer in the early 80s. “You need to talk to other inventors,” he said. “You get a good idea of where to go. People off the street have little interest in inventing.”
He eventually sold more than 500 countertop commercial slicers, mostly to small, independent bagel companies, and also developed and sold about 50 motorized slicers. At one time he was so busy making the slicers in his Capitola garage that he couldn’t keep up with orders. Then the market slowed.
In 1992, he sold the patents for both slicers to Prince Castle, which provides equipment to the restaurant business.
The key is to stay focused on one or two inventions rather than try to work on several at the same time, according to Low and Speer.
“You have to be focused; you can’t be too flighty,” Low said. “My father had lots of ideas start and stop and start and stop.”
Determination, tenacity and confidence in sales were also key, he said. “I was at the bagel companies at 10 o’clock in the morning all over the country.”
Neither inventor has struck it rich, however. Low, 74, is living off of Social Security checks while he tinkers with new ideas. During a recent hospital stay, Low realized it would be helpful to have a camera mount that attaches to the wheeled walker he’s been using.
“I’m just hoping something will come out of this next patent,” he said.
This article appeared here.