Britain is Enjoying a Design and Invention Boom

The number of people submitting ideas for patents in the UK has never been higher.

Home-based inventors are using ordinary consumer experiences and frustrations to dream up new products and services which they hope will earn them a fortune.

Typical of the new breed is Rowena Mead, 24, for whom life as an inventor started with the problem of trying to clean her two year old daughter Saskia’s teeth. Rowena was keen to brush Saskia’s teeth properly. The trouble was, Saskia did not want to put the brush in her mouth, and preferred chewing on the rubber toothbrush handle. Her eureka moment was an idea for a new design of brush to stop that happening. Her so-called Bug Brush has bristles all the way round – so there’s no ‘wrong end’ to go into the mouth. And the brush is bendy, to make it safer if toddlers fall over with it in their mouths. Rowena trained as a physiotherapist, but she abandoned that to go all-out for turning her idea into a business. “I’m not going to rest until every parent in the world has a Bug Brush in their bathroom,” she says with determination. But, as she is discovering, there’s a long and expensive haul between idea and business. She’s already spent £12,000 on getting a prototype brush made and lawyers’ fees to file a patent application.

It may seem surprising that people with just an idea, and no experience in business, want to risk so much to turn their inspiration into reality. But the figures for patent applications show that the UK is enjoying an inventions boom: more and more people like Rowena are starting out as inventors. The Intellectual Property Office (formerly the Patent Office) reports that the proportion of patent applications from individuals – as opposed to companies – is rising, and they’re predicting it could be as high as 30% of the total for 2007. Ian Fletcher, chief executive of the Intellectual Property Office, describes the trend as a “Dragons’ Den effect”, inspired by the popular BBC series in which entrepreneurs compete for investment. He says people have become more aware that “ideas have value, and patenting those ideas is one of the ways an individual inventor can capture it.”

Entrepreneurs Jonathan Craymer and Stephen Howes had their eureka moment sitting at Stephen’s kitchen table. They were puzzling over how to improve the financial security of the chip and PIN system. Jonathan insisted that a system was needed that did not use a PIN, which someone else could steal. They needed a way for users to enter a different number every time – but without having to remember lots of numbers. It sounded impossible. But, as Jonathan says, “we came up with an answer in about half an hour.” The system, which they call Gridsure, requires the user to remember a pattern, which they use to read off different numbers each time. Now they’ve given up their previous careers in IT and journalism, to concentrate on turning their Gridsure idea to profit. By entering the arena of financial security, Jonathan and Stephen are competing with big players. But they’ve already had a million pounds invested in the company, and are getting positive responses from MasterCard and other multi-million pound businesses.

Sir James Dyson has revolutionised the vacuum cleaner market, and owns a business valued at around £1bn. For him, inventing is all about using engineering to find better ways of solving problems. He confirms that the route between idea and business is firmly through the patent system: “We file about a patent a day. It’s accelerating because we’ve got more and more research engineers. It’s the backbone of our business.” And, rather than resting on his vacuum cleaner laurels, Sir James has launched a new kind of hand drier, which blows water off your hands instead of evaporating it.

On the receiving end of patent applications, the Intellectual Property Office’s Ian Fletcher wants to encourage both the kitchen table inventors and big businesses like Mr Dyson’s: “Anyone who has a bright idea should think of doing something about it. Doing nothing may well mean that an idea which would benefit you, and maybe benefit millions of other people, is lost. So I would just encourage people to act.”

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