If necessity is the mother of invention, Don Moyer must be one of the midwives. Back in 1983, he founded the Chicago-based Inventors' Council with the goal of helping inventors share and commercialize their ideas. He soon realized, however, that few of them were capable of turning their projects into successful businesses. Mean-while, small manufacturers all over Chicago were scraping along with mature products nearing the end of their life cycles. Moyer thought: Why not bring the two groups together? And so he made the Council a kind of matchmaker for small companies and inventors, the only such organization in the country.

It has been a interesting experiment, a case study in the twists and turns of innovation. In 1985, for example, Moyer formed a product-development study group, including about 15 small industrial companies. That group came up with a unique procedure called an "oppor-tunity for invention." For $2,500, companies can send out descriptions of desired products to the Council's 3,000-plus inventors, who respond with nonconfidential proposals.

The process seems straightforward enough, and it has worked -- sort of. Consider the experience of Waver Armstrong, who wanted new products for Unimetrics Corp., his $1.7-million microsyringe company. He signed on with the Council, received eight useful ideas, and began talks with the inventors. Those negotiations broke down -- but, meanwhile, Armstrong met another inventor with whom he reached an agreement. So did he waste his money on the Council? Not at all, says Armstrong. By making him think about his product needs, the group served as a catalyst, allowing him to seize an opportunity he would otherwise have ignored.

There's a lesson in such experiences, says Moyer. Innovation, he argues, is primarily a question of attitude: a company must be open to new ideas before they can take hold. Unfortunately, many companies aren't prepared to innovate.

But even when companies are open to new ideas, they may have trouble evaluating their needs. "Smaller firms are as unsophisticated as inventors in getting new products to market," Moyer says. With that thought in mind, he has begun working with a local college's entrepreneurship class to help companies research new markets before they request inventions. It's something of an experiment, and he's not certain where it will lead. "This is really just a research activity," he says. But, hey, that's innovation.

-- Martha E. Mangelsdorf