I retired in April 2013 after 25 years as a librarian at the British Library specialising in inventions. This included running numerous workshops; writing books on inventions and a work blog; carrying out searches for clients; and one-to-one meetings with inventors. [more]


22 April 2014

Make me a millionaire inventor

The Sky Vision TV series Make me a millionaire inventor has hit the UK screens, 18 months after my modest involvement with it. I remember the filming at the British Library (as seen in the opening footage, going along the shelves) and making suggestions on how to identify likely patents.

It's a reality show where each week two engineers, Shini Somara and Jem Stansfield, identify two patents by British private inventors where the products are not available in the shops. They are called on and asked if they want help with getting the invention commercialised. I am sure I'm not the only person who finds shows about getting a possible product to market very good viewing.

I saw it for the first time last Sunday, and assume it is typical of the series. The first inventor was Stephen Britt. Instead of an electric bicycle to assist the cyclist, only the pedal (under the foot) is powered, using batteries. 30% of the power needed to cycle is provided by it. Stansfield certainly seemed to enjoy cycling with it: the harder he cycled, the more he claimed to enjoy it. Britt's British patent was published in 2011 as Auxiliary drive for a cycle.

The other inventor was Marc Spinoza. He had thought of the Fin Band, and had registered the trade mark for it. His British patent, Buoyancy and rescue device, was published in 2010.

Meant for small children, this buoyancy aid has two large fins attached by a sleeve which clings to the skin. Only an adult can get it off the child, and hence it adds safety to the swimmer. Children splashing about in the pool seemed quite happy using it.

Both inventors were very pleased with the offered help. Britt had even given up his job while trying to get it off the ground, although his family apparently didn't mind. Thousands had been spent on the projects. Shrewd comments were made by separate panels interviewing the inventors, especially about the need to get the costs down. Many inventors do not realise that this is vital for many products. The electric pedal would sell for £350, Britt estimated, and you saw potential investors from the retail trade wince. The buoyancy aid cost £5 to make, and would sell for perhaps £20 in the shops, far more than competing products.

In the end, both inventors were helped by an investor, though one decided to go it alone in the end.

The show made it clear that many skills are needed to become a successful inventor-entrepreneur, including memorising crucial facts and having a viable business plan.

What the show didn't mention was the need to carry out research -- ironically, what you see the presenters doing at the start of the programme. Inventors need to check if an idea is new (otherwise you can't patent it), and what sort of market there is out there, including competitors (otherwise you look foolish when asked questions). Both can be done at the British Library's Business & IP Centre or at one of the UK's Patlib libraries. The problems involved in getting a patent was also not mentioned.

To be fair, a lot of useful ground was covered and it all made good viewing. Any inventors, and many entrepreneurs, can learn from the programmes.

My own small part ended up on the editing room floor. I had been an assistant to the presenters, bringing them volumes of patents to look at (which is actually done now on a screen, like so many things). My name was, however, mentioned in the closing credits, which was nice.

In the UK it's on Pick (Freeview 11) at 7 pm every Sunday.

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