Most of us know the stories of Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers and Benjamin Franklin--American inventors who demonstrated great ingenuity. But how come it's so difficult for most of us to name a modern-day inventor? Our focus on whom to admire seems to have shifted from those who improve our lives to those who entertain us. Well, allow me to introduce a living, breathing inventor who has undoubtedly changed your life.
The next time you peel open a Band-Aid, bite into a granola bar, wear a plastic-underwire bra, squeeze a ketchup bottle, use microwave cookware or wrap a contoured disposable diaper around a baby's bottom, thank 76-year-old Stanley I. Mason.
Mason's inventions are as diverse as his background. He's studied in several fields and worked for many companies, including Hunt Foods, Kimberly-Clark and Volvo. Today, he's president of Simco Inc., a Weston, Connecticut, think tank he established in 1973. As Simco's client list reveals, many Fortune 500 companies have looked to Mason to invent or improve their products. The reason is clear: He has a long track record of success.
Tomima Edmark is the inventor of the TopsyTail and several other products, and is author of The American Dream Fact Pack ($49.95), available by calling (800) 558-6779. Questions regarding inventions and patents may be sent to "Bright Ideas," Entrepreneur, 2392 Morse Ave., Irvine, CA 92614.
An Early Start
Like most inventors, Mason showed talent at an early age. When he was 7 years old, his dad refused to give him 15 cents to buy minnows for fishing bait. His mother suggested he make an artificial minnow and gave him a wooden clothespin. A few prototypes later, Mason had a bass-catching minnow. Within days, he had neighborhood kids paying him 26 cents each for the minnows, which he could make in 15 minutes.
He learned four important lessons from his minnow-making venture. First, create a product that people want. Second, products that can be demonstrated are easier to sell. Third, find a market that will be anxious to buy the product. And fourth, always think of how you can modify the product to create a line of related items.
Mason has since amassed an impressive inventing record. He holds more than 60 U.S. patents, many of which protect ideas currently in commercial use. Having worked with more than 40 corporate clients, Mason has developed insights into how to be an effective inventor of pint-sized products, which he shares in his new book, Inventing Small Products: For Big Profits, Quickly (Crisp Publications).
Mason believes many inventors create problems for themselves by inventing products before having the slightest idea of who might buy them. To discover where there's a need for a new product, take weekly trips to grocery, drug and hardware stores to study the categories of products for sale. Mason has even gone so far as to buy a sample of all the products in a category so he could recreate a store shelf to see how his product would look in a realistic retail environment.
If your objective is to sell or license your idea to another company, Mason has some strong opinions about how this should be done. He has discovered that the leading company in an industry is usually the least interested in new inventions. Mason recommends seeking out companies that are trying to become industry leaders.
Large companies also prefer to make lump-sum payments to buy inventions, rather than pay annual royalties. So Mason feels it's important to know how much money you want for your idea before meeting with one of these companies. And never go to a meeting alone; always have someone with you to act as a witness and to take detailed notes of what transpired. But Mason warns against bringing your lawyer to a meeting. This can ruin a deal by making the other side nervous. Bring your accountant instead, since he or she has probably already calculated the anticipated costs of bringing your idea to market and can help you negotiate.
On The Drawing Board
Mason's list of successful inventions is impressive, but this inventor has far from exhausted his creativity. He has several promising inventions that are expected to make their debuts soon.
For example, he has invented and patented the ultimate fruit bowl. Wouldn't it be great if you could put fruit in a bowl and not have it spoil in a few days? When that thought crossed Mason's mind, he solved the problem by designing a bowl set on a pedestal with strategic ridges and air holes.
Another of Mason's ideas addresses the problem caused when liquid cleaning products make your grocery sacks heavy. Why not package these products in concentrated form so consumers can mix water with the concentrate when they're ready to use them? With the help of his team at Simco, Mason invented a container that holds the concentrate on one side, and has an opening on the other side that allows you to easily add water. The sprayer at the top instantly mixes the two ingredients in the proper proportion. All consumers have to do is fill the empty chamber with water, then spray as usual.
But Mason's grand passion is the tallow tree. Several years ago, he realized that the Chinese tallow tree might offer a solution to our nation's need for cleaner-burning fuel. The liquid from the tallow tree's seeds can be used as diesel engine fuel without being refined. The smoke from an engine burning tallow seed extract is white and replaces the odor of diesel fumes with the smell of cooking honey. The outside of the tallow seeds can be used as a substitute for edible fats such as cocoa butter; the oil can be used in manufacturing plastic; and the leftover solids can be compressed and fed to cattle. "It's like the pig. You use everything," says Mason.
Mason believes enough tallow trees could be grown on marginal land in Hawaii and other states to replace at least 5 percent of the petroleum used in the United States--at the same cost as diesel fuel. Hawaii stands to benefit from this plan as well. In the past few years, the Aloha State has seen its sugar cane and pineapple crops transplanted to countries where labor is cheaper. Mason hopes the tallow tree will return valuable lost agricultural dollars to Hawaii.
Although Mason has clearly been successful, he hasn't always been financially independent. Many of his ideas were developed long before he quit his day job. He received a salary; the company retained the patents.
His first personal commercial success came when he and his wife developed a line of microwave cookware. Known as Masonware, it was the first line of microwave-safe cookware and cooking utensils. It sold in thousands of stores and made him financially independent.
With so many successes under his belt, what motivates Mason today? He enjoys working on his ideas and those of others at his custom-designed conference table at Simco, and his biggest joy is still the same: seeing an idea materialize into something useful.
Stanley Mason, (203) 227-0041, firstname.lastname@example.org