Arrow-right Camera

Nation/World

Budding Edisons Creative Juices Spokane Area Inventors Turn Vision To Reality

Sun., Nov. 9, 1997, midnight

Part 1 of 4

Admit it, you have an idea. Somewhere, kicking around in your head is something no one else has thought of, something that’s sure to be a hit.

Your idea solves a common problem or perhaps introduces a novel concept. It fills a need lots of people have, and you haven’t seen it on the market.

Maybe, just maybe, it will sell.

Inventors start that way, though they have more ideas than the average Joe or Jane. Their creativity brings new products to store shelves and homes. Sometimes we wonder how we ever lived without the latest gadget.

Consider Post-Its.

The spirit that created the little yellow sticky notes is alive and well in the Inland Northwest.

Spokane’s Charmaine LaChappelle-Reynolds knows that tanning aficionados worldwide would use her face protector if only they knew about it.

Robert Foster of Post Falls thinks supermarket meat departments will one day be required to use a product like his purge eliminator, which drains blood from bags of meat.

Coeur d’Alene’s Debbie and Rosella Miller are sure their Christmas ornament hangers would suspend miniature Santas from pine boughs everywhere if only they could get the word out.

By the time an idea becomes an actual product, inventors have invested thousands of dollars in their dream. They’ve spent hours at university libraries, holding their breath as they search through patents to see if someone else, somewhere, has thought of their idea.

Spokane’s Jack Robinson has been producing items other people dream up for years. He’s frequently been the one to let people down by telling them their invention has already been … invented.

“You can see their whole bubble burst,” the Spokane manufacturer said. “You say, ‘Oh yeah, I saw that in the Cabela’s catalogue.’ ” Carla Preston, who works for the Small Business Development Center, agrees.

“People are so blinded by their invention,” she said, “that they’re not looking at what’s out there in the world.”

Robinson, also an inventor, has the benefit of owning a product development company. When he comes up with new ideas, he has a way to quickly create them. He’s made his living through his imagination. One invention he counts as his own is the nylon Velcro wallet, which he developed as a sophomore in college.

Still, Robinson said he was young and inexperienced when he created the wallet. Though he made several thousand dollars from it, he never patented the idea, which quickly was gobbled up by other companies who produced the wallets faster and cheaper.

That’s why many inventors dash off to patent attorneys the minute they come up with new ideas. Patents protect ideas and give inventors years

to market products without fear of theft.

An inventor with a good idea is naturally paranoid that someone will steal it.

That’s kept Spokane patent attorney Keith Bergman busy for 42 years. More than 75 people have patented products in Spokane since 1996. Bergman said people here are quite inventive, partly because of the mentality of the West.

“You have to be a rugged individualist to survive,” he said of Westerners. “That’s what it takes to invent. When they need something, they invent it.”

Only 3 to 12 percent of all people who invent new products successfully sell them, he said.

Numerous inventors are on the path to developing products. Still more have hundreds of their products stacked in their basements and struggle to get them on store shelves. A tenacious few have succeeded.

Some of the proposed products are crazy things it seems no one would ever buy. Marketing alone made the pet rock a success. Others make sense, and reveal an obvious niche, causing wonder as to why no one thought of it before. How did we ever survive without answering machines?

A product’s success frequently boils down to the inventor’s ability to market it.

“You can patent something that would never sell and sell something that would never patent,” said Jim Price, a patent agent with the law firm of Wells, St. John, Roberts, Gregory and Matkin, which does most of the region’s patent work. “It’s fun when it works for them and heartbreaking when it doesn’t.”

Vonda Strong is one of Price’s favorite success stories.

The former dental hygienist now operates her own company in Northern California after inventing a new dental product that sold millions.

While working as a hygienist in Spokane in 1985, Strong hated making her patients uncomfortable during X-rays. The X-ray films irritated her patients’ tender gums.

She went home and started cutting out shapes for a product that would cushion the edges of X-ray film. She visited a Spokane foam rubber company and soon had a sample product. It’s soft on one side and adhesive on the other, making it stick to the edges of the film.

Strong recalls the response of the first patient she tried her Edge-Ease product on: “The very first lady said, ‘What is different about this? I have dreaded this. Those X-rays were wonderful.’ “

Thrilled with the response, Strong invested $20,000 in the product and applied for a patent. She sent photographs of her product to national dental publications and shortly after, it was featured on a magazine cover. Orders started pouring in. She quit her hygienist job and went into business full-time.

Within the first year of business, Strong regained her investment. Her line of products now is advertised and sold worldwide.

Strong’s success story is uncommon, Price said. Other stories break his heart.

One elderly Spokane man living in a low-income apartment invented a cereal bowl that separated the milk from the flakes to keep them crispy. He pleaded with Price to help him patent it, but Price resisted, not wanting the man to spend his life savings. The man persisted and eventually they applied for a patent.

When it was accepted, Price was so delighted he wanted to deliver the news personally. But it was too late. The man was dead. Drawings of the cereal bowl still plastered the walls of his apartment.

“He was so anxious about it. He’d lived his whole life for that, and he never knew,” Price said. “It still brings a tear to my eye.”

But the urge to create and nurture an invention is that powerful.

Dave Shill’s ideas wake him up in the middle of the night. He can’t walk into a supermarket without redesigning the shelves in his head. He’s been that way since he sat on the shore of Newman Lake as a child, designing little boats.

“When I get a good idea, it takes over my brain,” said Shill, 50, who holds 12 patents.

He grew up to invent a machine that became the backbone of a Spokane corrugated box company. He eventually formed his own company that designs machines for business customers.

“When a customer calls me up and says, ‘I want to try something new,’ that’s the beginning of a happy day for me,” Shill said.

Sid Lunden, 79, just completed the drawings for his 13th patent. Like Shill, Lunden (pronounced Lundeen) has spent most of his life inventing new machines. He’s well known within the timber industry for his lumber stacking machines that efficiently dry green wood. The machine is referred to simply as a “Lunden.”

Lunden recalls a conversation he had with the dean of engineering while he was a Gonzaga University student in the late 1940s.

“The dean told me, ‘You don’t want to be an engineer, you want to be a gadgeteer. And that’s exactly what I wanted to be,” Lunden said.

Innovation can’t be taught, the dean told him. It’s a gift people have. Timothy Cunninghamm, 43, however, believes that people are innately creative, but just don’t exercise their imaginations frequently enough.

Cunninghamm loves to design products for children because they’re not afraid to be creative and aren’t plagued by inhibition.

Cunninghamm’s ideas are too numerous to count, though he holds only one patent - for a perpetual clock that tells time by directing sun rays through a cylindrical piece of acrylic. The resulting beam of light indicates the time from numbers painted on the cylinder.

Cunninghamm also designed the sundial on the Centennial Trail, southwest of the Kardong Bridge.

In a South Hill home filled with toys he’s created, Cunninghamm admits he likes to “trick” kids into learning. There’s the StarMaster Star Guide (TM) - a small circular map of the night sky that, when illuminated by a little flashlight, shows which constellations can be seen during different seasons.

The “It’s Hydro-Logical (TM)” model game teaches children how to understand water power. Children set up little power lines, string them to model houses, then crank a wheel and watch the miniature city light up.

Cunninghamm caught the inventing bug from his family. His father was an inventor, and his uncle, a surgeon, holds 47 patents for medical devices.

According to family legend, Cunninghamm’s grandfather invented turn signals on cars.

“I was enamored of being a Mr. Fix-It inventor kind of guy,” Cunninghamm said.

Lunden also is proud of his career path. He says his lumber stacking machine is the best there is. He talks about inventing and marketing his first machine when he was still in high school.

But the ideas that have escaped him keep him humble. Whenever he starts thinking he’s pretty smart, he recalls an experience he had several years ago.

He was hunting in the Colville Valley with his Cocker Spaniel when the dog went into the brush and didn’t come out. Lunden found his dog so matted with cockle burs that it couldn’t move. Pulling out a jacknife, he whittled the dog free.

“And that was eight years before a Swiss engineer came up with Velcro,” Lunden said. “I understand the Swiss engineer who did come up with Velcro had a similar experience with a dog.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 photos (2 color) Graphic: Area inventors patent more ideas

MEMO: These sidebars appeared with the story: INVENTORS ARE FROM VENUS AND MARS Female inventors’ minds differ from male inventors’, said Spokane patent attorney Keith Bergman. He had no female clients when he started practicing patent law 42 years ago, but now sees almost as many women as men. Women inventors are more concerned with the details of their products, while men are more focused on the products overall function, Bergman said.

BUDDING EDISONS Today: A look at the struggles and successes of some of the Inland Northwest’s most inventive people. Monday: Coeur d’Alene’s Debbie and Rosella Miller have a patent on a new type of Christmas ornament hanger that stops ornaments from spinning around to expose the wrong side. Tuesday: Robert Foster of Post Falls has earned thousands on an invention that makes supermarket meat and meat departments safer. Wednesday: Charmaine LaChappelle-Reynolds of Spokane thinks sun tan devotees worldwide will want the face protector she has invented.

These sidebars appeared with the story: INVENTORS ARE FROM VENUS AND MARS Female inventors’ minds differ from male inventors’, said Spokane patent attorney Keith Bergman. He had no female clients when he started practicing patent law 42 years ago, but now sees almost as many women as men. Women inventors are more concerned with the details of their products, while men are more focused on the products overall function, Bergman said.

BUDDING EDISONS Today: A look at the struggles and successes of some of the Inland Northwest’s most inventive people. Monday: Coeur d’Alene’s Debbie and Rosella Miller have a patent on a new type of Christmas ornament hanger that stops ornaments from spinning around to expose the wrong side. Tuesday: Robert Foster of Post Falls has earned thousands on an invention that makes supermarket meat and meat departments safer. Wednesday: Charmaine LaChappelle-Reynolds of Spokane thinks sun tan devotees worldwide will want the face protector she has invented.



Click here to comment on this story »