From the murky shadows of their garages and workshops, nearly 2,000 haven’t-quit-my-day-job-yet tinkerers flocked to Pittsburgh last month for the 15th annual Invention/New Product Exposition. Sponsored by the Invention Submission Corporation, which helps inventors patent and promote their ideas for a fee, the show drew 4,500 people—investors, manufacturers’ representatives and the idly curious—to the Pittsburgh Expo Mart.
INPEX, which in the past has introduced such revolutionary products as stretchable gift wrap and sled pants, this year boasted the Tilt-A-Roll, a swiveling dispenser that eliminates the age-old controversy about whether toilet paper should be dispensed over or under, and the Bungee Sexperience, an array of elasticized rubber cords said to facilitate weightless coupling for those looking for “a lot of bounce.”
Never mind that fewer than 1 percent of all inventions ever make it to market. Discouraging stats didn’t stop these inventors from plunking down the $495 entrance fee to showcase their original creations at INPEX. Money well spent? You be the judge.
Don’t fry This with Your Doberman
Dog owners have always been attached to their pets, but none quite as literally as Kathy Manuel, who came up with the idea for BaliMac, marketed as “The Carrier Your Dog Wears!” ($29.95), in 1995, when her toy poodle Balivar grew hungry for attention. “He’d paw me and paw me,” she recalls. Exasperation turned to inspiration when Manuel, a Lafayette, La., native, spotted the sling her son Heath Maclain, 25, had worn after he had broken his arm. “It just hit me,” she says. “I laid it flat, cut leg holes, dropped Balivar in, put him on my arm and went to the store.”
Fellow shoppers raved, and Manuel, 43, a divorced mother of one who had recently quit her job in ad sales, found a new calling. Over the next two years she transformed the clumsy sling into a sleek carrier for dogs up to 15 pounds; it sports more features than your average James Bond car. The shoulder strap of the BaliMac (named after Balivar and Maclain) unhooks into a leash, its handle doubles as a seat belt restraint, and for the beach-bound the BaliMac converts into a doggie life jacket.
“Balivar loves it,” says Manuel, who found six potential distributors at INPEX. “It’s safe and comfortable.” Convenient too. “Sometimes,” she says, “when I’m fumbling for my keys, I hang him on the doorknob.”
A Spotless Driving Record
What motivated Carol Bell Hawkins to invent the Drive Cleaner was a hunger not for fame or fortune but for a southwestern-style burger with salsa and onions from Arby’s. “It was really gooey and really good,” says Hawkins, 47. “I wanted that sandwich.” But as a physical therapist who traveled from home to home to treat patients and who most days had to eat in her car, the object of her desire was a definite no-no. “It’s not very professional to go into patients’ homes with food on you,” she says. And so was born the Drive Cleaner, a plastic garbage bag affixed with hair bands on each end that forms a protective sling between the wearer’s neck and the steering column. She recalls the first time she tried it out and felt the joy of not having to worry about making a mess. “I was screaming and hooting and hollering, ‘This works!’ ” she says.
Hawkins, who lives with her husband, Kevin, 32, on a 40-acre farm in Benton, Tenn., has approached fast-food chains about the Drive Cleaner, which she thinks would make a perfect promotional tool for the restaurants. One manufacturer flew her to Detroit for discussions, but so far there have been no takers. Unfortunately she is discovering that if necessity is the mother of invention, then frustration may be the unwanted stepchild. Says Hawkins, in what must surely be the cri de coeur of every inventor since the birth of the wheel: “You lay awake at night and wonder, ‘Am I the only one who thinks this is a good idea?” ‘
Skinning Idahos, in the Name of Amour
Risk-averse by, nature, Lloyd Molloy and his wife, Judy, have spent less than $200 in the casinos near their Las Vegas home. “I work too hard to gamble my money away,” says the 61-year-old driver of a cement mixer. So how much of their savings has Molloy sunk into inventing a motorized potato peeler? “All of it,” he says—some $70,000. And he did it not for fame or fortune, but for love.
Judy Molloy is famous for her potato salad, but five years ago arthritis made peeling spuds an ordeal. So Molloy set to work, melting plastic into drum-shaped molds in the kitchen oven. “My wife thought I was losing my marbles,” he says with a chuckle. But in February 1994, on their 35th wedding anniversary, Molloy gave Judy, 56, his first crank-operated peeler, which took 65 seconds to do the job and required “not one but two mops” for cleanup.
But that’s ancient history. Molloy’s newly patented electric Spudwizz (about $49), which took home a gold medal in INPEX’s kitchen-accessory category, can simultaneously peel and wash six good-size Idaho potatoes in 30 seconds. Hook it to a tap, touch a button, and water filters in—softening the skins, which are then removed by the Spudwizz’s bladeless grating system and rinsed away. Currently in talks with manufacturers interested in a piece of the potato, Molloy has no regrets. “We ate a lot of spaghetti instead of steak,” he says, “but now I’m where I want to be.”
In Search of the No-Litter Toe Clipper
Hee Un Lee, who arrived in the U.S. from South Korea in 1982 with $79 in his pocket, managed to build his own refrigeration-and-heating business in Morton Grove, Ill. But for all his hard work, the achievement he craved remained elusive: to trim his toenails without launching any clippings.
Lee, 43, tried cupping his hands around his feet. He tried trimming inside a wastebasket. He tried a clipper that claims to catch clippings. But still nails scattered. “There had to be a better way” to build a clip trap, he thought. One day he asked his wife, Hye Sook, 42, how she’d like a clipper that caught “100 percent” of her nail clippings. “Good idea,” she said. That was encouragement enough.
Lee’s first five prototypes failed miserably. Finally, one night in 1996, the shiny Ultra Clip—its lever designed without a nail-deflecting pivot pin—came to him in a dream. He has since spent $250,000 in savings and loans to manufacture 10,000 Ultra Clips (suggested retail, $7.95). He got a gold medal at the Expo, but not the backers or distributors he had hoped for. So, Lee is selling the three-bedroom house he shares with his wife and two daughters—Jane, 8, and Jenny, 5. But he isn’t biting his nails. “Even if the odds are one in a million,” he says confidently, “I can be the one.”
Bruce Frankel, Bill Hewitt and Ting Yu
Reported by: Mark Warnick and Ting Yu in Pittsburgh