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  • Building Our Better Mousetraps

  • When the idea of a special section on inventions that have come out of the Rogue Valley was floated, skepticism reared its ugly head. How many could there be?
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  • When the idea of a special section on inventions that have come out of the Rogue Valley was floated, skepticism reared its ugly head. How many could there be?
    You'd be surprised.
    Southern Oregon is home to the creation of everything from landmarks of the software industry to the first successful aluminum driftboat to a mechanical Piranha that chomps the gunk that stops up sewer lines.
    All over the valley, it seems, hobbyists, industrial sharpies and others obey the inventor's oldest and most sacred call: Find a need and fill it. Tom Rice needs but a few words to sum up the alpha and omega of the game.
    "I just saw a need for something and made it," the 78-year-old Medford resident says.
    He's talking about the Lur-Lok, a pocket-sized gizmo he invented that can hold 20 fishing lures without them getting tangled.
    Like-minded folks hereabouts have come up with an astonishing list of need fillers. Some proved to be major winners.
    There's Apple Writer and Apple Writer II, written by Paul Lutus, the former Ashland resident. Apple Writer II, particularly, helped put Apple on the map.
    And there's Paul Mace, another Ashland resident, who in the mid-1980s created the first viable data-retrieval software and founded Paul Mace Software, which was eventually bought by Norton and Symantec.
    There is the Stream Machine — originally the Dipstik — which is that ubiquitous giant syringe used by rafters to squirt each other in the kind of horseplay that livens up a summer float down the river.
    The Stream Machine is a poster child for those who want to believe they can strike it rich with the proverbial better mousetrap.
    One of the original owners, Bill Bednar, who describes himself as "the ultimate dreamer," sold the business he and his Southern Oregon buddies built around the device in 2000 for $3 million.
    There are lots of other inventions for whom the golden fleece of financial success is still out there.
    There's the McCoy Thumb, a device that fastens to a backhoe or excavator to pick up trees, brush and rocks of up to a ton.
    There's the Nodstop, a head strap designed to aid travelers in catching a few winks on an airplane.
    There's the Auto Valet loading system, a no-hassle, winch-based system to load a special-interest or classic car — or even a car that doesn't run — into an enclosed trailer for towing.
    There's the Air Fridge, a heat pump-like appliance that sits atop a commercial refrigerator and cools stifling commercial kitchens.
    There's the Easy-Load Drum Dolly, which enables workers to quickly and easily lift 55-gallon drums weighing nearly 500 pounds onto a dolly.
    Patent attorney Jerry Haynes, of Medford, has represented many inventors. And he says he still can't tell which inventions will fly and which won't, and which applications are already covered by previous inventions.
    "Long ago I quit making predictions," Haynes says.
    If there's an antagonist here, it's the gap between inventing something and transferring it into money. Larry Grubbs, the 67-year-old Grants Pass man who invented the Easy-Load Drum Dolly, has sold two-dozen of the devices at $230 in five years. He invested $40,000 in legal fees and inventory.
    He figures the cost is the problem, and he's ready to sell the patent.
    Like Grubbs, many find that the trip from invention to riches is a long one, and full of perils. And as Haynes points out, there's no research and development happening at the corporate level in the Rogue Valley. So inventors tend to be everyday people who lack engineering, legal and sales departments.
    After patent research to determine an invention's originality, it is typically described in technical terms by a patent attorney, and the government patent office process begins. That can take two or three years or longer and may involve questions, interpretations, rejections, appeals.
    That's where Micro-Inventors Program of Oregon comes in. The innovative, nonprofit organization helps amateur inventors navigate the maze of patent lawyers and governmental hoops. MIPO focuses on consumer products, health care and wellness, with a special emphasis on aiding women and those with disabilities.
    Oregon products launched under the MIPO aegis in its three years of life include an electric skateboard, a clog-resistant drain and an interchangeable purse interior dubbed the Purslip.
    But in the invention business, as in gold mining or oil wells, guarantees are simply not part of the deal.
    Tom Rice's Lur-Lok sells for just five bucks, and he's made 4,000 or 5,000 in 20 years. Rice says he'd happily sell the business.
    He's the guy who described the alpha of inventing at the top of this page. He also sums up the omega.
    "It's all about marketing," he says, "marketing, marketing."
    Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at varble.bill@gmail.com.
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