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Resource - The Inventing Game

The following article was written back in 2001


It's a sad fact that many aspiring inventors become so committed to their inventions, that they lose contact with reality, and as a result, their home and family life is ruined. The problem is similar to gambling. The inventor, having committed months, maybe years to an invention and invested large amounts of ego and money into it, is reluctant to let go. They live in hope, that one day the world will listen and fortune will finally bless them.

This rarely happens.

The following statistics relate to Bill Courtney's work on inventions before receiving his first significant financial backing. They are presented in the hope, that they will assist aspiring inventors, to get a realistic idea of the struggles that lie ahead of them.

Bill's patents

Approximately 50 patent applications filed, 13 of which have received full patent status. About half the applications were withdrawn before publication.

Patent applications relating to the following areas of invention were filed:

  • Impact absorbing materials.
  • Lubricant free pumps for refrigerators, to help save the ozone layer.
  • Cryocoolers (very low temperature refrigerators, needed to exploit the benefits of "high temperature" superconductors).
  • Secure home delivery systems for the Internet Shopping Age (with Richard Klee).
  • Bar code based talking notice-boards for visually impaired people, (rejected in the UK but later independently re-invented in Japan).
  • Boot top spoilers for vehicles which incorporate an optical system for looking into the blind spot behind the vehicle, when reversing.
  • An improved version of the spoiler which also displays a warning message to tailgating motorists, to the rear.
  • Skiing gloves.
  • Mountain survival equipment.
  • Marine rescue equipment.
  • First aid splints.
  • Solar compasses.
  • Mountain navigation equipment.
  • Dog leads (two types, including one inspired by the shape of the DNA molecule).
  • An electronic engine immobiliser (which won a Sunday Times/Honeywell National Innovation Award in 1991, but at the time vehicle manufacturers were not interested. However, a couple of years after the patent application was abandoned, immobilisers similar in design entered the market. Today, they are a standard feature on new vehicles).
  • Graphics drawing aids for computers.
  • Virtual reality golf displays.
  • Security labels to discourage theft of personal property.
  • Table top games.

Lesson: You will probably need to come up with a lot of patentable ideas before discovering the killer invention.

Outlay in time and funds
  • Total expenditure on all inventions prior to receiving financial help in August 2000 = 91,000.
  • Expenditure on SALi to August 2000 = 66,000.
  • Time working on inventions = 4 years full time + 8 years serious part time + an indefinite prior period casual part time.
Lesson: Don't delude yourself into thinking that if you spend a few hundred pounds on your invention, grants and investment will shortly follow.

Attempts to communicate with British industry

  • Bill's inventions were exhibited at six Invention & innovation fairs.
  • SALi was exhibited at four of the fairs.
  • Estimated total number of representatives from industry spoken to at these events = 320.
  • Approx. number of mail shots to industry (mainly UK) = 290 for SALi + 240 for other inventions.
  • Total number of "boardroom" presentations = 24 for SALi + 10 for other inventions.
Lesson: Walking into the company boardroom is the beginning of your journey, not the end.

Media exposure prior to receiving grant aid

TELEVISION: BBC2: Money Programme, ITV: 3D, The Discovery Channel: Discovery Today, Granada regional television, 3 x cable/satellite programmes.

RADIO: Radio 4, Science in the Attic, a 15 minute programme about Bill Courtney, "prolific British inventor", several appearances on local radio, including discussion programmes; BBC World Service.

PRINTED MEDIA. At least a dozen articles describing Bill's inventions were published in national newspapers, colour supplements, glossy magazines and special interest magazines as varied as motor car, cycling, packaging and agricultural interest markets. Also, articles published in engineering journals Eureka, Eureka on Campus and The Engineer.

INTERNET: Appeals for industrial interest in SALi posted on the European Community Cordis and Eureka web sites

As a result of all these attempts to communicate with (British) industry just one working relationship, with Dow Automotive, a business unit of the American company Dow Chemicals Ltd was generated.

Lesson: Media interest may lead to your breakthrough, but don't bank on it.

Bids for government & other assistance prior to receiving first grant aid

Four DTI Smart Award grants were applied for.

Applications for several non-government grants were made, including competitions set up by Saatchi & Saatchi, Rolex, Toshiba, Monaco Inventions Grand Prix. - All unsuccessful.

However, since August 2000, we have won NESTA, SMART and Foresight Programme funding.

Lesson: You may make a lot of unsuccessful bids for funding, but, provided you are prepared to learn from your failures, your efforts may not have been in vain.

Bill's studies to improve his professionalism as an inventor

  1. Awarded Post Graduate Diploma of the Chartered Institute of Marketing (1992).
  2. Awarded MPhil in Mechanical Engineering (1998).
  3. Studied several short courses relating to setting up a new business, desk top publishing, publicity material design and exploiting the internet.
Lesson: Professional studies maybe a worthwhile investment, but don't expect short term results.

Bill's technical publications

  1. MPhil thesis on SALi.
  2. Papers on SALi presented at international engineering conferences in Poland, Ireland and London.
  3. Five engineering journal papers published/ pending publication.
The situation today

Since August 2000, one of Bill's inventions, SALi has received major financial backing in the form of SMART, NESTA  and Foresight Vehicle Programme awards. There is still a lot of research and development work to be done on SALi products before they reach the market, estimated to be sometime around 2004. - Eighteen years after SALi was invented.

A Cautionary Tale - The relationship with company "C" and Mr "R"

The following story shows how, even if you are welcomed with enthusiasm, into the warm bosom of British business, it can still, all end in tears.

By November 1997, Bill Courtney had completed sufficient university research on SALi to verify that it worked as a novel impact absorber. So he started casting around for a partner with industrial experience, to apply for a Government DTI Smart award, to help fund the next stage in the commercialisation of SALi. He heard that company "C" in the Cheshire area was a small innovative company with good working contacts with university research groups and an excellent track record of winning UK Government and European funding.

After checking out their financial viability with Dun & Bradstreet, he approached company "C", where his suggestions for a joint Smart application were met with enthusiasm. In fact, they liked his innovative ideas so much, that within a week of the first meeting, they made him a verbal offer of a job on a salary plus share of profits basis.

Bill drew up the first draft of the Smart application, then handed it over to "R", who had been appointed by the company to work closely with Bill. "R" played a very close game and only finished his professional improvement to the application, forty minutes before the deadline for submitting entries. Bill was urgently summoned from home to "R"s office and asked to deliver the document to the DTI offices in Manchester; which he did, with three minutes to spare. The application got through the first round and the DTI invited company "C" to make a more detailed, full application.

Bill's slight doubts, following the hairy delivery of the preliminary application were soon soothed away, when he was told that DTI, North West were so impressed with "R"s contributions to modernising British business, that they had invited him to be the guest speaker at a forthcoming North West Smart Award presentation ceremony in Bolton. Glowing comments about Mr "R" and company "C" also appeared in the business section of the Manchester Evening News. Mr "R" further raised his status by being invited to judge an international inventors competition in Beijing.

The late delivery pantomime was repeated when submitting the full Smart application, so Bill was unable to see a copy of the final document for himself, until he received a photocopy three weeks later. Bill discovered that the final document contained several serious errors which completely undermined the credibility of the application. He was not surprised to hear, at the end of April 1998, when the results of the Smart competition were announced, that the bid for Smart funding for developing SALi had failed.

One of the factors which had motivated company "C" to offer Bill a job, had been that the highly respected engineering journal Eureka had recently featured SALi as their cover story. (Shelley, T. Flowing fluid makes an impact on the material world, Eureka, December (1997) 24-25.)

By February 1998, the journal article had generated over eighty business enquiries about SALi from industry- an inventors dream!

Project manager "R" pointed out that he had the status and skills to handle these enquiries, so each time a fresh set of enquiries arrived in the post, they were handed over to "R" Time went by, with "R" being busy on a number of projects and plausible excuses being made for the enquiries not being followed up. There were also problems with Bill's job contract being finalised. "Our lawyers up in Scotland are going through a reorganisation", "We have had a break-in and documents essential to the contract have been stolen", even, "We are under staffed because the MD is on a Richard Branson style expedition to the jungles of Borneo!" etc., etc.

The result was, that by May 1998, there was still no job for Bill, no Smart Award and the enquiries from industry had not been responded to. The adventures of the MD in Borneo seemed to be the only thing that mattered. When Bill finally lost patience and demanded the return of all his invention samples, his list of industrial enquiries and other documents, "R" refused to hand them over to him.

Two months after the end of this very costly fiasco, Bill heard that "R" and the MD of company "C" had both been fired. Company "C" went into receivership in 1999.

Linked page: Ten Tips for Inventors