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Local inventors group supports tinkering with new ideas

Santa Cruz Sentinel

SANTA CRUZ – Once a month at a round table near the back of Denny’s on Ocean Street, a group of dedicated problem solvers bounce ideas off each other, culling through a myriad of possible inventions that just might make the world a little better.

Last week’s meeting of the Santa Cruz Inventors Workshop, a half-dozen engineers and a pharmacist who drove with his teenage son from Danville, hashed out patent issues, market realities and the nuts and bolts of devices that promise to improve health, steady a camera, light up a stage and possibly help with the global energy conservation effort.

It is the latest incarnation of a drop-in group of dedicated tinkerers that dates back to the 70s. Attendees must sign a non-disclosure form so ideas can be freely shared. On rare occasions, the group will help shepherd the seed of an idea all the way to the commercial market.

“We only want serious inventors who want to do a lot of hard work,” said Terry Chappell, who is working on several ideas at any given time and is currently trying to solve a common cosmetic problem and an environmental issue. “We want people who are willing to do the nitty gritty of the market research, make one (a prototype) that works, and all the contacts, knock on all the doors.”

The group isn’t an investment group or a focus group but a place for like-minded folks who are constantly looking at devices and processes in new ways. At each meeting they offer to sign each others’ inventor notebooks to establish the date of someone’s invention and test its hypothetical validity. They try to estimate what a device would cost and search for potential legal issues.

Monday, one inventor’s idea morphed so radically from its original state that when they noted it in the group’s nondisclosure record, participants split ownership.

At one time, there were about 30 similar groups meeting in various cities throughout the country, but, these days, only a few groups continue to meet, said Chappell, the “defacto chairman.”

In several decades, the group has contributed to the success of an industrial bagel slicer created by former Capitola resident George Low in the 80s and a safety frock for psychiatrically self destructive incarcerated people created by Lonna Speer, a nurse who runs Ferguson Safety Products from an office at the Old Sash Mill.

Inventing is a way of leaving a legacy, said F. Jerry Paul, an engineer who has spent a professional career making things work better such as Whirlpool dryers, garage door openers, Mattel toys, answering machines and ovens. These days, he is still filled with ideas.

“I often would like things to be easier to use,” Paul said. “In the shower, I am thinking how the shower could be more efficient. I developed something along those lines,” he added. “Or, driving the car, I’m thinking how it could be more energy efficient. Whatever I do in life I think, How could this be better? particularly if I’m annoyed and spending too much time trying to understand something before I use it. I want the user’s life to be carefree. That motivates a lot.”

Often the ideas are more a labor of love than actual marketable solutions, said Jim Starr, an engineer and self-described “tinkerer” who occasionally uses the group to bounce ideas off others. Primarily he attends to listen for viable ideas that he can support as a partner. He’s worked on about a dozen inventions of other people but has yet to be involved in bringing something to market.

“The ideas that can be profitable are few and far between,” Starr said, noting that a year-long project involving a medical device created by a US Santa Cruz professor now doesn’t look like it will make it through the patent process.

While everyone would love to hit it big, it’s not the main driver for tinkerers.

“There are activities that give people great pleasure,” Starr said. “For me, one of them is them is the a-ha! moment of discovery.

For information about the Santa Cruz Inventors Workshop, contact Terry Chappell at 831-662-1936 or terry.chappell@sbcglobal.net.

This article appeared here.

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This entry was posted on January 16, 2011 by in Business, Feature Articles.

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