Inventors-for-hire can take your brilliant germ of an idea and transform it into a market-ready product

In a nondescript conference room within an undistinguished office building in Woburn, Mass., inventor George Freedman demonstrates the solution to a problem that has annoyed humankind for decades. With a dramatic flourish he spreads out time sheets on a table, so an observer can appreciate his breakthrough: a rest-room hand dryer that cuts drying time by two-thirds without melting the user's fingers.

The dryer testifies to Freedman's indomitable refusal to accept life's irritations, a denial common among members of his profession. What is unusual about this inventor is that his talents are for hire. Almost everything Freedman and the three other principals of Invent Resources do is at the behest of corporate clients that lack the resources necessary to bring their own brainchildren to life. For example, Freedman invented the fast-drying wonder for an established manufacturer that doesn't have enough in-house scientific expertise to design such an animal. Invent Resources -- and other businesses like it -- is proving that nothing about a company, not even its basic products, has to be homegrown.

Think of Invent Resources as an invention nursery, a place where a new idea is planted, briefly nurtured, and then shipped to someone else's farm, where it will be cultivated into a cash crop. Invention nurseries have been around for some time and include such distinguished independent research-and-development organizations as Arthur D. Little, based in Cambridge, Mass.; SRI International, in Menlo Park, Calif.; and Battelle Memorial Institute, in Columbus, Ohio. Fifty years ago the not-for-profit Battelle invented the electrophotographic copying process that was later brought to market by an upstart called Xerox Corp.

These days the nursery business is thriving. The demand for innovation is strong among a range of customers, including smokestack industries in need of pollution-control equipment, hospitals looking for medical devices that will lower costs, and catalog companies hoping to entice stock-market-rich consumers with ever more thrilling novelties. At the same time, maintaining an in-house R&D function is expensive. Scientists and engineers command high salaries, and many products require a diversity of specialists -- metallurgists, say, as well as physicists and chemists.

Consequently, outsourcing the invention process may be "the next hot technological trend," as editor-in-chief Tim Studt wrote in a recent issue of R&D Magazine. Increasingly, both large and small companies are farming out all or part of their R&D, just as they've outsourced manufacturing, information technology, and other functions that were once considered core. Many companies turn to one of the foremost nurseries, the 20 or so distinguished independent labs with total annual revenues of $3 billion. Others, particularly more diminutive, less well heeled organizations, seek out moonlighting university professors or fired or retired engineers.

Invent Resources' clients range from such corporate stalwarts as toy manufacturer Fisher Price to start-ups that have yet to earn their first dollar. Even the big nurseries, it seems, are increasingly willing to accommodate small and medium-size projects. Battelle, for example, continues to work on cancer therapies and fuel-efficient cars but is also the proud inventor of LavaBuns, a pad to keep rear ends warm in cold football stadiums, which was commissioned a few years ago by the R.G. Barry Corp., in Columbus, Ohio. SRI International, well known for its work in robotics and artificial intelligence, was approached two years ago by a businessman from Hawaii who wanted to build a company around a new way to make coffee. So SRI created for him a household coffeemaker that can be adjusted to make the brew strong or weak regardless of the amount of beans and water.

Not surprisingly, invention nurseries generally spring up near organizations that train the talent required to staff them, such as universities and high-tech companies. Silicon Valley is fertile ground. "This is the third wave of outsourcing here," says Bret Herscher, president of Pacific Consultants, a three-year-old nursery in Mountain View, Calif. "In the first wave companies outsourced the manufacture of subassemblies but still had plants where they would put the parts together. In the second wave they turned the assembly over to subcontractors as well. In the third wave they are moving even R&D and design outside."

One of Pacific Consultants' several specialties is electronic tools, including surgical devices. An entrepreneurial physician can walk through the door with an idea for a medical device and some financial backing, and Pacific Consultants will take it from there, designing the device, building a prototype, and arranging to have the item manufactured and distributed. The company handles everything but the marketing.