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Help for lovers of invention

Ideas are budding in an old mill building at the edge of uptown.

Half-built strollers, reinforced with cardboard, line one wall; a mutant ping-pong game called Monster Pong rests nearby. Brightly colored book covers clutter a work table in the next room, and down a corridor is a pen that helps teachers grade, a diaper bag that unfolds into a bassinet and more.

The offices are home to Enventys, a product-development company that helps inventors move their ideas from napkin sketches to store shelves. In January, it launched a Web site it calls the “Facebook for inventors” to connect its ballooning number of members with one another and with retailers looking for new products.

There is a growing community of inventors in the Carolinas and nationwide, experts say. Some attribute the rise to the increasing ease of the process, thanks to the Internet, local groups and product-development companies such as Enventys. Others credit market changes – the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis, for instance, has sparked an interest in developing medical supplies – and the down economy, which has pushed some people to take a chance on their ideas.

“These big recessions are like an environmental jolt for people and spur them to action,” said Charles Bamford, an entrepreneurship professor at Queens University of Charlotte, who said interest in his courses is exploding. “When our backs are up against the wall, we tend to come out swinging.”

Historically, economic downturns, such as in the early 1980s, have produced a crop of people who turn to self-employment and inventions, he said. When the job market is tight, laid-off employees would rather innovate than move to another city or join a field they don't like, Bamford said. In the Charlotte area, the unemployment rate has hovered around 7 percent in the past three months, a level not seen in five years.

Inventors filed more than 467,000 patent applications last fiscal year, up from 446,000 the year before, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. That number has climbed steadily the past two decades.

The office issued about 184,400 patents last fiscal year. In North Carolina, the number of patents issued has hovered around 2,000 for the past few years, up from the 800s in the 1990s and the 500s in the 1970s, data show.

There are nearly 60 inventors associations with thousands of members across the country, said Patrick Raymond, director of the New York-based United Inventors Association.

They are, for the most part, ordinary people who want to solve ordinary problems: housewives who come up with a better kitchen knife, plumbers who come up with a better tool, men like Raymond, a tall guy who invented a shower-curtain expander.

“What is an inventor?” he asked. “It's an everyday person who just happens to have a flash of genius.”

But those flashes of genius don't mean sure success.

Just 11 percent of people with ideas take a chance on them, experts say. Of those, just 10 percent see their products end up on the market. A patent isn't a business, experts caution; it just means you have a mono poly on your idea for 20 years.

The process of bringing an idea to market can take years and cost $100,000 or more for an inventor working alone.

Products that do well usually offer something better, cheaper or faster, inventors and product-developers say.

Usually, it's easiest to invent what you know, Raymond said, adding that 60 percent of his group's members invented something related to their jobs.

That wasn't the case for Janice Micek of south Charlotte. The former art saleswoman and stay-at-home mom invented a product that will appeal mostly to students frustrated with not being able to write directly in their textbooks to highlight passages or take notes. Micek, 56, did not want to reveal further details, because while she has a patent, the idea could be easily duplicated, she said.

She came up with the idea in 2000 while on an airplane. A high-school student sitting nearby was busily marking in a book she'd bought – and saying she wished she could do the same with her school-owned textbooks.

“Within minutes I thought, ‘Wow, how could you overcome that?'” Micek said.

She perfected her idea shortly after, researched the inventing process, found a lawyer and got a patent. She developed a prototype and, four or five years ago, enlisted the help of a consumer-behavior class at UNC Charlotte to develop focus groups and marketing strategies.

Now Micek, a member of the Inventors Network of the Carolinas, is looking for a licensing agent who will present the product to a manufacturer, she said.

Ultimately, she hopes to get the product in stores under the brand of a company that makes similar products, she said.

Commitment to an idea is one key to success, said John Rizzo, president of the Inventors Network of the Carolinas, formed in 2005 to help local inventors launch their ideas and avoid scams.

“Although people may have different products and concepts, the underlying current is the same,” he said. “Everybody's passionate about what they do, and they will pretty much stop at nothing to be successful.”

Rizzo, an inventor, owns a Mooresville company called Inventive Technologies, which specializes in electronics product development. It sometimes partners with Enventys, which focuses on industrial design.

The inventors network has about 50 members and has been growing, Rizzo said. Members range from about 30 to 50 years old and have proposed everything from a specialized wheelchair to a lighted pooper-scooper, he said.

Enventys sponsors the group, and many local inventors hope to get their ideas in front of the company, they said.

Enventys, a private firm, was founded in 2001 by Louis Foreman, an inventor who holds a series of patents.

It bills itself as a one-stop shop for inventors, with engineers, industrial designers, branding experts, a sales team and others on staff.

Company officials say inventors typically need three or four companies to provide the services they can get at Enventys.

Inventors who use the company's services pay $1,000 for an orientation session to learn what it would take to turn their idea into a real-world product. Enventys officials discuss the idea, its target market and other details and come up with a custom statement that details what it would cost to develop and how long it would take.

If the inventor moves forward with the process, the orientation fee is credited toward his balance, officials said.

Enventys' office, tucked behind Bank of America Stadium, is filled with sketches of inventions and models in varying stages of development.

Enventys officials created “Everyday Edisons,” an Emmy-winning TV show that chooses about a dozen concepts – from thousands at casting calls nationwide – and develops them, start to finish, for free.

Once the product makes it to market, the inventor receives about 10 percent of the net sales, minus retailers' fees for rebates, shipping, credit card fees and other costs, Enventys officials say. By comparison, an inventor who develops a product himself and licenses it to a retailer can usually expect to see 2 to 4 percent of net sales, based on the industry, officials say.

The second season of “Everyday Edisons” is airing now on PBS; season three is in production. A number of “Everyday Edisons” products are already being sold, such as Workout 180, an exercise device that combines strength training, stability and cardiovascular workouts.

Edison Nation, an online network, came next, after the show's producers fretted about passing up so many good ideas. The free Web site features blogs, forums and resources for “idea people” and connects them with national retailers looking for the next big thing.

Through that live product search, inventors can submit ideas to an online database. Partner retailers include Spirit Halloween stores, looking for Halloween products; Spencer's Gifts, seeking a product to rival the lava lamp and disco ball; and Razor USA, best known for its shiny scooters, looking for a new kids toy, without wheels.

Retailers who select a product develop and manufacture it. Inventors who are selected earn $2,500, plus about 3.5 percent of net sales – and could see the entire inventing process trimmed to six months.

About 20 or 30 products have made it to the store shelves from Enventys, “Everyday Edisons” and Edison Nation, said Matt Spangard, the Web site's co-founder and director. Hundreds more are in development now, he said.

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