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Inventing for Alaska

Alaska inventions have a decidedly northern focus

Posted: Tuesday, January 07, 2003

ANCHORAGE - Richard Martin wanted to build a better poop scoop, and once he did, he reckoned the rest of the world would want one too.

"My wife and I own a dog kennel," said Martin, of Chugiak. "The commercially made poop scoops that I used to use lasted a year to six months."

With a cut-down antifreeze jug and long poles, he made a scoop and a rakelike device that held up for six years.

Now he has patent No. D406,415 on an "Ornamental Design for an Animal Excrement Collector."

According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, he is among about 500 Alaskans who have received patents since 1996. Many of their inventions - from a helmet light for snowmobilers to a tube that makes it easier to bury the dead in permafrost - have a decidedly Northern focus.

Douglas and Rebecca Bowers, dog mushers who live in Nenana, are seeking a patent for the Walking Bag because they say the sleeping bag is so limiting.

"If you're in a survival situation, what are you going to do, crawl into a sleeping bag and die?" Douglas asks.

Their bag has legs and a detachable foot bag. It would allow a musher - or a downed pilot or a stranded mountaineer - to climb into the nylon cocoon with everything on, parka and boots included. The user can then walk around in the bag, stoking fires, tending dogs or whatever else needs doing.

Once you have a patent, you can keep other people from stealing your idea and making a fortune. But as Anchorage patent agent Mike Tavella points out, patenting your concept does not pave the path to success.

"Just getting a patent is not enough," Tavella says. "It's not going to get you phone calls from companies that say, 'We want to give you $10 million.' "

Tavella tells inventors they need to do cold-eyed market research and plan on a lot of hard work if they expect to succeed.

Martin, the poop-scoop inventor, seems a case in point. He made and sold a number of his scoopers for $25.

"I've sold them off the Internet as far away as England and Australia," Martin said. But now he has no active marketing campaign and business has dwindled. He has even let the Web site, poopandscoop.com, lapse into oblivion.

A patent gives the holder exclusive rights to the concept for 20 years, or 14 years if the patent covers only the look of the thing, not its utility, as in Martin's case.

Tavella is the most active of the six patent agents and attorneys in Alaska. Many of his clients' ideas never make it to the marketplace. Some clients find they have to move to the Lower 48 to get their products off the ground.

But one of Tavella's most successful clients is Darryl Fenton of Wasilla, inventor of the Poop Moose candy dispenser. Lift the wooden moose's head and it emits M&M candies from its rear.

Fenton has sold more than 100,000 of them, mostly through a licensing agreement with a Kodiak man who got them on the cable TV shopping channel QVC. In that arrangement, the moose were produced in a factory. Fenton, as the patent-holding inventor, got $3.50 apiece.

The Kodiak deal later fizzled, but Fenton is still making animal dispensers in his workshop. Prices range from $60 for a mini-moose to $150 for the Millennium Pooper Limited Edition, which has cherry wood antlers and eyes inlaid with ebony and antique ivory. He can produce about 100 a week.

Don't even dream of stealing his concept to create a poop cow or poop cat. Patent No. 5,651,475 covers the internal candy-moving mechanism.

"He's got it patented to cover any animal," Tavella said.

Steve Karcz and his business partner, Bill Fischer, are on the cusp of profit with their helmet lamp, patent 6,439,733.

Their light supplements a snowmobile's headlight but also lets the night rider look around. From behind, the helmet light glows red. It is wired to the brake handle and blazes brighter when the rider slows down.

They made their first models at Karcz's kitchen table. Eventually they turned to a plastics manufacturer in St. Louis.

"We sent them our prototype and said, 'Make it look cool and make it not look like a plumbing part,' " Karcz recalled.

Now the Lead-Dog Helmet Light is selling through snowmobile dealerships for $79.95.

Karcz figures they've sunk $150,000 into it since they began the project 12 years ago. It'll be a year or two more before they start recouping any of that, he said.

"This year it is covering its expenses," he said.

Joe Balch, a Salcha homesteader, got a patent for what he liked to call a "multigenerational time capsule burial system."

His invention looks like a piece of PVC pipe, but smaller two-chambered tubes are placed inside the larger one. The deceased's ashes go in one side of the smaller tube. The other side is for papers, locks of hair or other memorabilia.

Balch held onto his brother's ashes for two years so he could inter them in one of his tubes in Salcha. Joe, who had a bad heart, saw to it that his brother was the first to make use of the time capsule burial system. That was in September.

"Just two weeks after he buried his brother, he passed away," said Joe's widow, Marie Balch. "We buried him the same way."



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