Patent No. 5,524,641: An Inventor's Story
With his wife, Sharon, trailing him, Arthur Battaglia snakes through a congested Sportmart in Santa Rosa, Calif. The affable 42-year-old knows the floor plan well, as the store is located in a newish strip mall two blocks west of his apartment complex. He darts past a round of ski jackets, then by a rack of 49ers sweatshirts. He jokingly strokes with his arms as though he were swimming. "More than once, Sharon has followed me daydreaming through the sports store," Battaglia says.
"I think it's cool," she replies.
Battaglia cuts around a bend and down an aisle stocked with new sneakers. He inspects them quickly, then heads for a gulch of in-line-skating gear. He stops and surveys the products reverently. Elbow pads, knee pads, wrist guards, and helmets. "There it is," he says. "My future, hanging on a shelf."
Battaglia's destiny, he believes, is the next great advance in athletic-equipment technology, an industry with $17.3 billion in yearly sales. His concept is this: A geodesic dome bears a great deal of weight over a light frame. Therefore, little webs of geodesic triangles inside a helmet or a knee pad should absorb and redistribute the impact of a tackle on a gridiron or a fall from a bike. In 1994, Battaglia applied for a utility patent for his concept. Eighteen months later the application resulted in the award of U.S. patent #5,524,641. Battaglia recalls being thrilled when he opened the letter from the bureaucrats granting his claim. But in the six years since then Battaglia has gotten no further than having just one crude prototype to show people, despite his personal investment of $8,000 on the project.
As the youthful inventor's temples start to gray, he is coming to the conclusion that getting a patent is only the first of many milestones. "American business is all about the stories of people who didn't give up, like Fred Smith and Ross Perot," he says with a sigh. "I'm a guy trying to make it, and trying hard."
Yet sadly, the tale of Battaglia's languishing invention is certainly more commonplace than the triumphal biographies of the heroes he cites. Many entrepreneurial efforts just stall, and they often stall for reasons that are hard to pinpoint. Diligent entrepreneurs rarely know if and when they should let go. The clichés fill an inventor's mind as tools and sketches clutter his workbench: Persistence pays. If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Except, doesn't that kind of optimistic conditioning contradict the capitalistic premise that resources and talent should flow constantly across an open market to the most lucrative and rewarding projects? Is Battaglia's patent just a dud? Is his exceptional entrepreneurial stick-to-itiveness blinding him to reality? Or is next year the year his invention will take the sports world by storm?
Such questions feed a maddening debate -- and not just an existential one. Battaglia believes his invention offers his best chance to make it big, if only he can figure out how. But the eight years since he first sketched his idea on the back of a Pete's Wicked Ale coaster have been frustrating. As he and Sharon emerge from the Sportmart, a lurid orange sun sets behind a ridge on the western side of Sonoma Valley -- and with it Battaglia's confidence wanes. "I wonder if the people here get tired of my coming in," he says sheepishly. " 'Here comes Art to squeeze the shoes again.' "
Battaglia's peers have encouraged him to entice skater punks to embrace the aesthetic of the geodesic design
Inventors have always been recognized as a significant subset of the entrepreneurial population of this country, from Ben Franklin to Thomas Edison to Ron Popeil. Aside from such folk heroes, however, the popular imagining is that most inventors are brilliant, yes, but also misanthropic, reclusive, and paranoid. So entrenched is the stereotype that Dashiell Hammett used it to anchor one his famous mysteries, The Thin Man, in which he depicts a rich inventor who is cruel to his family, "full of screwy notions," and "batty as hell." When the man's corpse is discovered, the sleuths have their choice of suspects.
In more recent times, our perceptions of inventors have softened. Art Battaglia is part of this new breed that is altogether less ornery, less eccentric, and more sympathetic to the needs of the outside world. Perhaps the most distinctive trait of the current crop is that they are much less secretive than the old school. Today's tinkerers are increasingly likely to organize themselves into small societies that operate like Rotary Clubs of invention. They typically gather once a month to share stories, glad-hand, and applaud one another. Groups in Houston and Minneapolis have become community institutions, running science fairs in the schools and hosting large conventions. "I don't have a precise number because there's no central source for these groups, but I estimate that there are about 100 or more across the country," says Richard J. Apley, the recently retired director of the patent office's independent-inventor programs.
One of the most established inventors groups happens to be in Santa Rosa, the town where Battaglia lives. The not-for-profit Idea to Market Network -- or ITM for short -- is run by Steve Schneider, who would like to perfect a model for teaching the invention process in Santa Rosa and then take it national. Battaglia pays dues of $50 a year to ITM on top of a $15 door charge at each monthly meeting. For that fee he gets to hobnob with the creators of a variety of items, including anti-skid tile flooring, an inflatable canoe, a shrimp deveiner, and the Loot Scoop, a plastic paw attached to a trick-or-treating sack. That last item, which Oprah once brandished during an appearance on the Tonight Show, garners sales of $2 million a year.
On a cool Saturday morning, I meet Art and Sharon Battaglia at their apartment to accompany them to an ITM meeting, at which Art is unveiling his very first prototype -- a knee pad with a geodesic grid cut into it. A mold maker he met at the group did the one-off job for only $500. Battaglia hopes to use this week's gathering as a focus group, and he'll ask the attendees to complete a survey printed on tiny slips of paper. He is excited and anxious, which leads him to reproach Sharon, an artist, when she takes too long to select a red-suede jacket to wear. "You look like you're going on a hot date, not to some hillbilly-inventors meeting," he says.
"I don't have a hillbilly coat," she replies girlishly.
The couple moved to Santa Rosa from San Francisco two years ago to escape soaring Russian Hill rents. Sharon chose their new place because, though a bit small, it overlooked a pasture where horses were kept. But then, eight months after they moved in, the horses disappeared and a developer broke ground on a new complex. In their early days in Santa Rosa, Sharon was ill and didn't work, straining the couple's finances. "We've had our struggles as a married little family here on essentially one income," Battaglia says. Still, Sharon is unfailingly supportive of his invention work.
We go outside and come to a large, executive-looking Chrysler that's painted jade green and upholstered in rich ebony leather. Battaglia's day job is managing a Thrifty rental-car office on the freeway that runs through the city. As a manager, he can get a good car for a special occasion like today's. We hop in and drive across town to a one-story office building. In the parking lot is a sandwich-board sign with the word "Inventors" above an arrow pointing to the entrance.
The meeting is already under way, and Schneider is busy stamping out any furtiveness. A Name-tag Nazi with the silky voice of a radio announcer, he compels participants to introduce themselves and their inventions. Each month ITM draws anywhere from 40 to 80 participants. The group's members are pretty diverse. There are farmers and athletic preppy types and women in business suits and people with foreign accents and even a few people with unkempt hair and long fingernails, thus reviving the old inventor stereotype. Battaglia points to two refined older gentlemen sitting in the front row and identifies them as millionaires. In contrast, another guy has endured two hours on a bus to attend. He has recently sold his car and hocked his wristwatch to raise research-and-development money. One man has a small child in tow -- I wonder if he has a weekend-custody deal.
Schneider introduces John Christensen, a longtime entrepreneur who has spoken to inventors groups in Sacramento, Santa Clara, and Paso Robles, and founded one of his own that meets in Manteca, Calif. Christensen is an elfin man in his fifties clad in a polo shirt bearing the logo of his company, Sandpiper Technologies Inc. His wife and collaborator, Ann, is in the audience. John has earned patents for anticounterfeiting technology, an indoor wind chime, and a camera used by wildlife biologists to see into the nests of endangered bird species.
Although a few of the older salts in the room occasionally interrupt Christensen's talk, everyone else is mesmerized. They nod when he says, "One percent of invention is invention -- any idiot can have a great idea. What matters is what you do with it." And they scribble in their pads when Christensen tells them how best to manage themselves. It's easy to become frustrated in a business world that often rejects innovation, he admits. "I recommend that you work on three projects at any given time. If you work on one project and focus on it, you lose perspective. If you work on two, you constantly ask yourself, 'Which one should I work on?' But if you have three going, the most wonderful thing usually happens: one of them turns out to be a success," he says. "And it's usually the one you least expect."
We break for lunch. Battaglia sidles up to me and says that the three-idea tip struck him as helpful. He has other ideas, he promises. But still, the geodesic athletic equipment -- well, he can't believe that it isn't a winner. "It's the best, most valuable idea I've ever had," he asserts.
LONELY ART'S CLUB: "When you don't know why you're not succeeding, it tears at your sense of right and wrong."
Back at his apartment after the meeting, Battaglia breaks out his files, which have been kept as faithfully as if they belonged to J. Edgar Hoover. They are jammed with the detritus of invention. Notes on napkins. Lists. Copies of correspondence. Market research in the form of the kind of candy-colored charts that appear in USA Today. His early drawings of helmets and knee pads are signed and dated by a witness, since Battaglia heard that taking such precautions was an effective way to prevent the theft of intellectual property.
The files reveal the many ways over the years that Battaglia has tried to get backing for his idea, which he refers to as Dometric Technology for marketing purposes. There is a 1997 letter to an incubator in San Jose, Calif., asking for design assistance, prototype development, and an introduction to a NASA testing facility. There is an application to the 1998 Discover magazine innovation awards, which failed to make the grade. And there are many letters to rich people. Battaglia has pitched his idea to Mark Cuban, the billionaire Internet entrepreneur who owns the Dallas Mavericks. He has pitched former quarterback Steve Young. He has pitched Dean Kamen, the celebrated inventor who unveiled the Segway Human Transporter on Good Morning America last year.
Another letter in Battaglia's files is addressed to Ted Leonsis, the wealthy AOL Time Warner executive who owns the Washington Capitals. Leonsis, though notoriously arrogant, didn't reject Battaglia out of hand. He never got the chance since Battaglia never mailed the letter. Why? "How much 'no' can you take?" he says, starting to sound like Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath. "When you don't know why you're not succeeding, it tears at your sense of right and wrong."
More unsettling than the stack of fruitless correspondence is the fact that his pitch, when made in person, has proved no more compelling. Battaglia often drives great distances to engineering schools to track down people who have expertise in developing products like protective athletic gear. To those travels the inventor brings the brio of a door-to-door salesman, which is what his father actually trained him to be. Back in Okemos, Mich., where Battaglia grew up, his dad pushed him to sell newspaper subscriptions. When he graduated from college, he took a job at his father's company, which sold trade ads in dairy-farm journals. "Were it not for the amount of conditioning I received as a youngster, I would have given up on this a long time ago," Battaglia says.
Battaglia's visits to academics have always seemed promising at first, he says. There was the time that a professor at the University of California Berkeley referred Battaglia to a doctoral candidate, suggesting that she look into his idea. She did and told Battaglia she would be willing to create a computer-aided design of his prototype. The two talked for weeks, but then she dropped the assignment in favor of another that was closer to her own research.
More recently, Battaglia was in Michigan visiting his family. He interrupted his vacation to drive 60 miles to Ann Arbor to visit a research scientist at the University of Michigan who studies ways to prevent injury. The E-mail message that this expert had sent Battaglia contained one particularly rousing sentence: "Has anyone fabricated one of your devices ... or is that something I should set one of my graduate students to do as a trial?" Battaglia's meeting was cordial, but to date the professor has not followed through on his generous offer.
Why has Battaglia struggled so? Among the obvious reasons is money. His Thrifty salary is $32,000 a year, plus a couple thousand in bonuses. That wouldn't prevent many entrepreneurs from getting a business off the ground. But the product Battaglia proposes to make will require a pretty hefty investment on the front end. In 1998 a proposal from a product-design firm pegged the cost of creating a proper prototype between $10,350 and $16,970, depending on whether Battaglia wanted to share royalties. More than a year later, when he complained about the cost, he received a curt E-mail message from another potential backer. "What they wanted to charge you was reasonable," the would-be investor wrote. "If you believe in your product, that's what it takes -- cash."
And there are other red flags. A product-design engineer reviewed Battaglia's proposal and told the inventor that the cost of manufacturing products based on his design would probably drive the price of the product beyond what consumers would be willing to spend. The engineer also pointed out that the strength of the geodesic shape, which Battaglia sees as an attribute, might ironically be a problem. He explained in an E-mail message to Battaglia, "It seems to me that there is an inherent conflict between the structural stiffness and strength offered by the geodesic-dome principle and the compliance and deformation required of energy-management materials." In other words, if geodesics are so stiff, perhaps they won't "give" enough, and the wearer will suffer injury. Additionally, athletic equipment must have a smooth surface so that it doesn't catch on pavement, for instance, and cause harm to the wearer. Battaglia's design, with the triangles of a geodesic dome cut into it, would have to be carefully produced to achieve such smoothness.
Ultimately, the staff of some laboratory will have to test Battaglia's equipment in prototype form to see if it will work. But arranging a lab test is not easy for a nonengineer with no affiliation with the sporting-goods industry. Battaglia may be able to commission a few more prototypes over the years, but without validation he'll have a hard time selling a license to a large company. Alternatively, he could launch his own company to sell his products. His ITM peers have encouraged him to try to entice skater punks to embrace the aesthetic of the geodesic design -- essentially a strategy that says, Screw the benefits of the design and buy it because it looks cool. Battaglia is willing to consider tailoring his pitch. But even if a maverick grassroots interest in Battaglia's products were to arise, he would still want to do lab testing before selling them on the open market. It's a question of minimizing risk. As Battaglia noted in the "con" column in a 1993 list of pros and cons of geodesic equipment: "Possible paralysis lawsuits."
Battaglia has spent one-fifth of his life pursuing his patent -- an idea that was supposed to liberate him from the tedium of working for others but so far hasn't.
Youthful ambition, geography, and politics conspired to draw Battaglia to the exhilarating yet frustrating world of invention. He came to San Francisco in 1991 and took a job at a company that provided valet parking at many of San Francisco's downtown hotels. Like all thirtysomething transplants, Battaglia spent his first few months getting to know the city. He joined a soccer league. Then, as the 1992 presidential election drew closer, Battaglia fell for H. Ross Perot, the plain-talking entrepreneur from Texas who challenged the staid two-party system. He volunteered in Perot's local field office. "I looked up to him," Battaglia recalls. "The maverick, the innovator who was well rewarded."
The combination of his hero's can-do charisma and the city's electric entrepreneurial vibe proved intoxicating. In between depositing and retrieving cars in the Hyatt hotel's garage, Battaglia began scribbling the notes that would one day fill his files. A "statement of company purpose" (circa late 1992) mentions no product but reveals Battaglia's desire "to consciously consider all current and future effects that my business decisions will have on the U.S. and world natural environment." Later he outlined his plans to "have a computer and patent-pending status in two months."
Battaglia has spent one-fifth of his life pursuing his sports-gear patent -- an idea that was supposed to liberate him from the tedium of working for others but so far hasn't. His disappointment might have been predicted. The vast majority of patents do not result in a marketable product, and patents filed by first-time inventors are particularly likely to remain dormant. "Most inventors do better on their second or third or fourth patent," explains Apley, the former patent official who is teaching a class for new patent examiners. "The rate of success is low on their first try, because they don't usually understand the need for market research. What sells is as important as what's invented. Some inventions aren't the better mousetrap. The thing to do is to know your market and know when your idea is a loser."
Oddly enough, Apley blames inventors groups in part for the phenomenon of inventors' tending to get stuck on a lousy patent -- even though he thinks the groups constitute a positive force in the invention world. The problem is, he says, that "the presentations that inventors see at these groups can sometimes give the impression that an inventor can think, 'I have a patent. Now I can make a million dollars.' " He adds: "I'm sorry to say that's not the answer. Getting a patent is probably the easiest part of the whole equation."
Battaglia's experience certainly bears that out. He thought that the journey his idea would take from a patent to a product hanging on a hook at Sportmart would be long but not endless. He has wealthy friends who own their own companies who don't seem to have struggled as hard as he has. One guy is a developer. "His house literally has wings," Battaglia says. "When I go there, I dream, 'My God, if I get my patent going ...' "
But instead of living well off royalty checks, Battaglia must log long hours at Thrifty each week. "I don't even make my age in income," he says. He works in a small gray hut with a creaky sliding door located on a stretch of freeway near a trailer park, a place that sells pornos on DVD, and a garage that installs neon tubing on the undercarriage of cars. The offices are filled with what looks like thrift-store furniture. The kitchen is grungy. Battaglia had to install a drop-key lockbox himself by cutting a hole in the side of the building.
Some moments make it seem not so bad. On the afternoon I am there, an older fellow comes into the store looking for help. He's been in an accident with his rental car and needs a new one. Battaglia, clad in a white polo with the Thrifty logo on it, takes the guy's license and paperwork. Then he notices that the man is from Ann Arbor, Mich. Against all odds, it turns out that he works with the research scientist who led Battaglia to believe that one of his students could build a prototype for him. The car renter listens patiently to Battaglia's animated description of his patent. Clearly, the man's mind is elsewhere. But the inventor is undeterred. The clock is ticking. His patent expires in 2013.
Mike Hofman is a senior staff writer at Inc.
The Man Behind the Dome
As Art Battaglia rolls into his eighth year of trying to bring geodesic-laced athletic gear to market, one of his sources of inspiration is the life of R. Buckminster Fuller. Fuller, the father of the geodesic structure -- yes, indeed, there was one -- was born in 1895 and couldn't see a damn thing until the age of four, when his flinty New England parents realized he needed eyeglasses. Like Battaglia, he was a man of enormous energy who was compelled from a very young age to change the world. At 19, Fuller dropped out of Harvard and joined the navy for the remainder of the First World War. Returning from the war, he moved from job to job and invention to invention. In 1954 he patented the geodesic dome, figuring it was a fine solution to the problem of designing sturdy low-income housing. "I didn't set out to design geodesic domes," Fuller once wrote. "I set out to discover the principles [operative in the] Universe. For all I knew, this could have led to a pair of flying slippers."
Fuller's daughter, Allegra Fuller Snyder, recalls that her father always seemed to have more clever ideas than he did dollars to make them happen. "My father was involved in starting two companies that I know of," she says. "One had to do with a kind of building block he developed with his father-in-law. That company was sold. My father considered it very much a failure." The other, which was a company to sell prefabricated circular houses, erected only one prototype structure. It was recently moved from Wichita to the property of the Henry Ford Museum, in Dearborn, Mich. That is fitting, Snyder says, because her father "enormously admired" Henry Ford -- not because he was a great businessman but because he did something that improved the lives of millions.
Despite his 27 patents, Fuller never became a rich man and always earned more in speaking fees than in royalties, Snyder says. "Maybe he would have been able to do more if he had had more money," she says, "but he didn't think about it that way at all."
As for Battaglia's scheme to use geodesic design in sports equipment, Snyder says, "I'm not an expert on geodesics, but they are known for their strength, and they do distribute impact all over. So anything of a protective nature, like a helmet, would probably benefit from that structure." Music to Art Battaglia's ears.
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