2011-02-10 / Business News

Light-Bulb Moments

Man caves and barrier islands are a few ideal places to invent things
BY EVAN WILLIAMS ewilliams@floridaweekly.com

IF NECESSITY IS THE MOTHER OF INVENtion, consider marketability its father.

One day, they were talking with their offspring.

“You are a unique and special gift to the world,” Invention’s mother said.

Invention’s father added (in a tone Invention mildly resented), “Boy, you’ll never amount to squat in life if you’re not cost efficient, packaged appealingly and produced in large numbers.”

So how does a visionary idea come to life in the marketplace? Just about every inventor faces this question. Thomas Edison, who holds the record of 1,093 U.S. patents, was also known for his business acumen.

In fact, he didn’t invent the first light bulb. Instead, his innovation was coming up with an incandescent bulb, one that had a “practical” use, according to the National Park Service. Mr. Edison also came up with a wiring system that made it possible to install and utilize them, including on/off switches.

Bob Steele’s Lanai Lights invention. 
COURTESY PHOTO Bob Steele’s Lanai Lights invention. COURTESY PHOTO We present four Southwest Floridians who stand together with past and present inventors and visionaries, and alone with ideas found nowhere else.

They are also committed to seeking patents, a calculated risk. The total legal fees of acquiring a patent normally runs upwards of $10,000, says Southwest Florida patent attorney Edward Livingston. Meanwhile, the idea usually remains “patent pending,” a kind of probationary period during which the idea is protected for at least two or three years.

The United States Patent & Trademark Office granted 244,341 patents in 2010, which includes inventions from all over the world. That’s the most ever, 52,414 more than last year and the greatest increase since at least 1963.

Many local inventors have sought Mr. Livingston’s services.

Mark Anderson developed a system that uses the flow of water in aquifers below the ground to cool the air in buildings. He hopes to adapt the technology to provide heating as well. 
COURTESY PHOTO Mark Anderson developed a system that uses the flow of water in aquifers below the ground to cool the air in buildings. He hopes to adapt the technology to provide heating as well. COURTESY PHOTO “It decreased during the recession and now it’s picked up again,” Mr. Livingston said. “There is a lot of innovation now, a lot of new inventions. It’s the future of America, really. What separates us from the rest of the world is our great inventions.”

Jim “Magic” MetzMagic Flush

A car salesman by profession, Jim Metz enjoys tinkering on evenings and weekends in a garage space that — complete with its Green Bay Packers memorabilia and sexy wall calendar — could described as a man cave.

Mr. Metz, 56, has built picture frames, elaborate model boats and a new product with a patent pending: Magic Flush. It was inspired by the laborious process of flushing and cleaning outboard boat engines and cleaning off the boat after a day on the water.

“I’d be down there by the dock (of Port Charlotte home), flushing engines and everybody would be in the pool having fun,” he said.

He’d have to clean one engine at a time with a single hose, then use it later to spray off the boat. After four round-trips from the man cave to Home Depot, he built a product that allowed him to simultaneously flush multiple outboard boat engines and clean the boat simultaneously.

“A good friend of mine said, ‘You should patent that,’ and I said, ‘Nah,’ and he said, ‘You should patent that.’ And I said, ‘You think?’”

Magic Flush is a sturdy brass manifold that four lengths of hose are hooked up to. He’s made about 200 of them so far. It sells on his website for $39.95 (extra for more hoses), and comes with a five-year warranty.

Mr. Metz saw an ad on television for InventHelp, which is guiding him through the patent process. His coworker and friend, Steve, an employee of Palm Automall, provides support.

“We get done with work and come home and build 20 or 30 of them,” Mr. Metz said.

His hope is that eventually companies such as Boat U.S. or Bass Pro Shops will order them in quantity.

“We’re ready for it,” said Mr. Metz, whose nickname “Magic” comes from shows he put on as a kid. “We’d be working night and day but we’re ready.” For more information, visit www.outboardmagicflush.com.

Mark AndersonGeothermal cooling and heating

Mark Anderson had a successful career as a residential and commercial builder in Lee County for about three decades. His daughter had pushed him toward a greater and greener social conscience. And because of the recession, he had plenty of time to investigate new ideas.

One is a geothermal system for cooling and heating buildings. His feasibility studies have already shown the cooling system is more efficient than the latest direct exchange air conditioners. Mr. Anderson’s model is also virtually soundless. One system could potentially heat and cool four or five homes and pay for itself in three to five years, he estimates.

Flashback to 2008: Four years earlier, Mr. Anderson had bought nine acres on Periwinkle Way on Sanibel Island. He planned to develop a singlefamily subdivision and had the proper permits in place. Then the real estate market collapsed. The land remained undeveloped.

At the time, his daughter was an environmental studies major at the University of Colorado.

“She kept challenging me as a contractor slash-developer to do things that were carbon neutral,” said Mr. Anderson, 59, president of Benchmark general contractors. “She said, ‘Dad, trends are going to be different, and you need to get on board.’ I started thinking about it — and I had a piece of property with the permits to deliver it to a market that didn’t exist.”

He decided to use the property to test out some ideas, one of which was based on a fact: water flows in an aquifer under Sanibel Island’s porous sand and shellbased earth. He had always seen it as an obstacle in his profession; you had to drain the water to set a foundation. But it could be a source of energy, too.

By installing shallow wells in the underground water supply, he could harness the flow of water between two wells to cool air. He is also working on a geothermal heating system. The “heat exchange” model uses black polypropylene panels (also used for solar hot water heaters) buried in the ground water.

“You could look at what we install in the ground as a radiator,” he said.

His most comprehensive green project has been Sea Glass of Sanibel, a 12-acre eco-friendly community that utilizes electric carts and vehicles, urban gardens, fruit groves, wildlife habitats and rainwater harvesting. Mr. Anderson worked with Martin Gold, director of the University of Florida’s School of Architecture, to create Sea Glass, where his geothermal systems are being vetted.

The barrier island’s groundwater is a reliable, stable source. It isn’t affected by drought and stays between about 72 and 76 degrees. Off the island, Mr. Anderson has found his invention less viable, although he has tested it there with some success. This summer, he plans to replace the air conditioning system at his office in Fort Myers with a geothermal one.

The materials used for the cooling system are relatively simple, proven technologies he developed for his own purposes. His pending patents, for instance, involve a specialized pipe installed in the wells, and the distillation of the water.

“With the price of oil going up, with the price of gas going up, I think geothermal has arrived — at least on barrier islands,” Mr. Anderson said.

Bob SteeleLanai Lights

After Bob Steele bought a home in Heritage Palms, he looked for a light switch on his lanai when it got dark. There wasn’t one. And that got him thinking.

“In the course of looking around, I saw all the other lanais were dark, too,” he said.

Since then, he has designed lights that make screened-in areas, pool decks or balconies more like another room in the house. It took about three years to develop a suitable commercial product.

Now Mr. Steele has the parts made in Akron, Ohio and assembles them in a small commercial space in Fort Myers. The company is about to outgrow the pace. Lanai Lights operate by remote control, have dimmer switches to set the mood and throw light in a 170-degree arc inside the lanai so as not to annoy the neighbors. They come in white and bronze.

Mr. Steele figures there’s a big market for the product, since screened-in porches are as ubiquitous here as palm trees. The challenge was in keeping the lights simple and efficient enough to produce a lot of them.

“You can build one of anything,” said Mr. Steele, 74. “When you try to build 1,000 it’s a whole different story.”

As it turns out, his previous life experience gave him an edge in the invention process. In Ohio, he had once been director of operations for an alliance of manufacturers. They made parts for U.S. tanks, for instance, as well as a law enforcement device that safely punctures a speeding criminal’s tires. At that time, Mr. Steele co-invented a removable speedbump his alliance of companies manufactured for use at events such as church socials or fairs.

Other inventors frequently brought fine ideas to him, though often impractical.

“A lot of inventors get stuck at that part,” he said. “They come up with a great idea but don’t know how to make it, and don’t know how to market it.”

Lanai Lights has a patent pending. The company had a soft opening last year, then halted production to catch up with practical details involving order forms and packaging.

Mr. Steele is also perfecting a lowvoltage LED version of Lanai Lights, which turn on like streetlights with a built-in sensor. It will be out the second quarter of this year.

“I get a kick out of putting things together and making them work,” Mr. Steele said. “The day-to-day stuff is other people’s responsibility.”

To that end, his son Jeff Steele is president of Lanai lights, and his oldest grandson, Zach Steele, is production manager. The inventor, meanwhile, might be out on the golf course.

To learn more, visit www.lanailights.com

Local inventors’ club

The Edison Inventors Association Inc. has about 200 members and meets at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates every third Wednesday of the month. Members are in various stages of invention, from patent searches to engineering drawings and prototypes to funding and manufacturing.

President Joseph Gross has sought grants for members to fund their ideas, bringing in more than $30,000 last year. The Livingston Law Firm in Naples this year will also offer a free service free for a chosen, patentworthy product that includes a viable business plan.

Having a patent doesn’t protect an idea from a big company that wants it. What it does allow is for the inventor to litigate.

“If you have a good enough idea and someone has enough money, they’re going to steal it,” Mr. Gross said. “Whoever has the most money wins.”

If they aren’t sure about a product, inventors might also consider a provisional patent, which costs $110, is as easy to fill out and buys the inventor a year of protection to decide whether or not to move forward, Mr. Gross said. ¦

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