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Page last updated at 10:12 GMT, Wednesday, 2 September 2009 11:12 UK

The life of an inventor


Dominic Hargreaves with his invention

Inventors want more help from the law to stop their ideas being stolen. As foldable bike innovator Dominic Hargreaves writes, an inventor's life is full of promise and pitfalls.

The first thing is that I don't call myself an inventor. It's a humility thing. I don't think there are many who would actually call themselves an inventor.

Patents cost money and it's not just one patent - you have to put a patent on every way of achieving something

If I had to describe myself, it would be as a "designer"'. But with that comes the possibility of creating something new, something of worth, something that would propel you into the exclusive club of being regarded as an inventor.

Originally I was inspired to take this career path because, as a child, I was constantly being taken to an old buckle factory in the heart of Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter.

It was a really antiquated factory and fascinating in every sense. Exploring it would make you feel like anything could be made there.

The Hoist
Hargreaves says designers must always be questioning their environment

Whenever I get an opportunity to go on a factory visit, I take it. Revealing the secrets of how things are made is one of the most inspiring things in life. You get to see things as they are. When it's revealed how something is made it brings a whole new life to it.

A key quality of being a designer/inventor is being able to question things.

One of my favourite bits of my own work is The Transporter

I saw lots of children leaving their scooters outside school. A lot of them had been stolen. I thought 'Why can't they take them inside? If only you could integrate a scooter into an actual backpack'. It took five months to realise the idea.

It was really right at the time. I did see a real market, especially for children.

Another idea was The Hoist, inspired by my bike being stolen all the time. I kept getting my bike stolen. It's out of reach, out of harm.

Would your bike be safe if you kept it up here?

The Transporter was shown at a lot of exhibitions.

In general, I show the concept but I don't show how it actually works. If I can't do the idea myself or can't find backing straight away, what I do is expose the idea and I get the credit.

You do get situations as with The Transporter, when something has been shown too much for it to be worth patenting.

And one thing people have to understand is that you can't patent everything. Patents cost money and it's not just one patent. You have to put a patent on every way of achieving something.

Let's say you have a particular hinge, you have to patent every way that that could be done. It becomes a costly business. You need to know that you can sell or produce it.

The Transporter in action
The Transporter is both a scooter and a rucksack

Intellectual property rights are both a good thing and a potential obstacle. Imagine you've got a great idea, but part of the idea conflicts with someone's patent. You can propose a licence, but in a lot of cases it can be very difficult to secure the rights for a long period and at a reasonable rate.

There are great designs out there that can't be produced because of the inability to secure the relevant intellectual property rights. So, the process of invention or design does not end with a working prototype. Legal advice and establishing a working relationship with a company that takes your idea on board is also a big part of the process.

Dominic Hargreaves at work
The inventor/designer must master many skills to get anywhere

It isn't easy to pursue my line of work. When I originally set out training to become a designer, one of my tutors informed the year group that we first-year students were either one of two things, either very brave or very stupid. "Which one are you?" he asked us.

Well, at the time it came as a bit of a shock and I was left with the feeling, well I hope it's because I'm brave. Those design magazines I'd been reading at that time had projected this incredible life that I was about to embark on and I was then faced by the reality of the situation, it was by no means going to be easy.

But there are many challenges you can face beyond just having and realising an idea. The challenges are often unexpected. The company you're working with suddenly drops the project. Or the person you are dealing with leaves the company or, as with some good friends of mine, has a heart attack.

It is a daunting prospect to think that great ideas can be quick in concept but can take years to realise and perfect.

Debt burden

Life could be made easier for the designer/inventor.

Starting out with the now usual burden of student debt makes it essential that there are suitable grants offered to people with ideas. We've got enough loans already.

The government needs to actively encourage research and development through looking into the viability of tax breaks and incentives. As a country we need to invest in backing new ways of thinking to move forward.

Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone
Inventors have to negotiate with captains of industry

I think of myself as part engineer, part artist, part designer. Great ideas like Edison's now controversially phased out light bulb tread the fine line between a wonder of engineering and a work of art.

I design mainly because I can't resist the challenge. Whatever the subject, I'll be able to find something interesting in it. The feeling of being able to have a go at breaking new ground is what keeps me going. Though as a designer, I'm aiming at the products that don't make sense... yet, anyway.

Send us your comments using the form below.

All patents should be abolished. The proliferation of patents and the ridiculous concept of 'intellectual property' is now becoming a hindrance to genuine innovation.
John, Downpatrick

People think patents protect the inventor, whereas in fact they are a tool for big companies. The bigger you are the better, because its all about who has the biggest and best lawyers and who can afford years in court. You want to stop a competitor? Just patent (or buy) a similar idea and then tie your smaller competitor up in court till they collapse. That's the game. But it wont change, because law is written under huge influence of lobbyists who are paid by large companies.
Andy Evan,

I agree. The cost would be prohibitive for any average person to try and patent something without financial backing. The thing is, someone might be incredibly inventive, but no good at selling their idea - so many ideas are simply dropped. Look at the advances made during WWII; anything that might further the war effort got fast-tracked without long delays. If they'd had to raise financial backing and register patents all while earning a living doing some other job - we'd have lost. If this (or any) country wants to be at the forefront of technology and industry then encouraging new ideas is fundamental and critical to growth and progress.
Andrew Jones, Nantwich, UK

I have had many good ideas over the years that I could have taken further, 2 of which have actually been mass produced (which I have kicked myself for!) The reason I didn't go further is due to the large costs of patents, which i could not afford. It would definitely be a good idea to implement these ideas as they would help many young designers/inventors gain some ground and might lead to some excellent future inventions!
Ronald Wheatley, Ipswich, england

I have a Patent approved. It took 3 years from start to finish. The hard part is now getting someone interested in giving you grants to get it to market. People are worried that your invention might be overtaken by the 'big boys', so look at you as a short term solution.
Martin Godfrey, Stratford Upon Avon

Great article on the life of an inventor. I particularly agree with the point about government grants. Between family, work, home etc, as it is for most people out there, my time is mainly occupied and writing/pursuing patents for my ideas. It is proving such a lengthy process that I have seen 'new' ideas in magazines that I have been developing for some time. I'm sure this is a regular occurrence. I think there should be a government department where you can go and disclose ideas, with secrecy assured. If feasible and viable, they could then be patented, developed and hopefully marketed with a suitable portion of the recognition and eventual financial reward being returned to the inventor. This would avoid good ideas being carried around for years and eventually coming to nothing. Paul Jeram, Portsmouth

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