Our five speakers gave us their very different stories, but with common themes and lessons learnt.
Natalie Ellis, inventor of the Road Refresher non-spill dog travel bowl.
Natalie Tried for many years to get into the pet market. She came to
The British Library about eight years ago and immersed herself in our
market research reports and pet related industry information. This gave
her the knowledge to understand the market and be able to sell
effectively to supermarkets like Sainsbury’s.
This is a message I repeat to all of my clients in advice sessions.
If your background is not from the sector you plan to launch your
product or service, you must first gain in-depth industry knowledge by
reading relevant publications, and even gaining some work experience
The idea for Road Refresher came from nearly being arrested by the
police, for trying to let her dog drink water while driving her car.
Natalie built a very basic prototype in her kitchen in the evenings
while waiting for her daughter’s dinner to cook. As is almost always the
case, her initial prototype didn’t work.
She displayed her final product at a trade show and generated
interest there. This encouraged her to enter a women’s invention awards
competition, where she won three awards, which led to BBC news coverage.
Next came the fateful invite to appear on Dragons Den. Apparently the
unusual chairs the Dragons sit in, make them look small and
insignificant, which inspired (misplaced) confidence in Natalie. As
anyone who has seen the clip will know, the experience turned out to be
awful, with personal attacks from the Dragons due to Natalie’s lack of
knowledge of the size of her market.
James Caan’s reaction to her plan to take the bowl to America, was to
warn Natalie that America was the graveyard of British business. All
successful inventors and entrepreneurs have ‘bounce back ability’, and
so a few days later when she had stopped crying, and realised she
believed in her product, she decided to ignore the Dragon’s advice.
She flew to America and took a stand at a trade show, and had initial
difficulties selling the product, but by the time the Dragons Den show
appeared on television, it had become the fastest selling dog bowl in
America on Amazon.com.
Q. Did anyone offer to licence the product?
A. She was offered a 3% licence and turned it down. The moulds are
made in China, but by a company recommended by a personal contact.
Q. How to present your product to potential buyers?
A. Natalie demonstrates her product by waving a full bowl in front of
potential buyers faces, and watches their reaction when no water spills
Mike Spindle, inventor of the revolutionary Trekinetic Wheelchair
Mike has a Formula 1 racing car background, but despite a lack of
knowledge of the wheelchair sector or disability background he developed
all aspects of the Trekinetic. He said the key is noticing the problem,
and the poor current solutions in the market to address it. He thinks
his lack of industry knowledge and decision not to review existing
solutions or patents helped him find a truly innovative solution.
The initial trigger was seeing a trendily dressed young man stuck in a
terribly old fashioned wheelchair, painted purple in a failed attempt
to jazz it up.
Mike’s advice was first check existing solutions in the market place.
Then sketchyou’re your solution, and build at prototype or test
concepts using Meccano. Concentrate on function first, looks come
second. Ultimately the product must sell itself. A big marketing budget
will only take a mediocre product so far.
Don’t spend a fortune on prototypes, you can do a lot with MDF. Try
and keep what you are doing as private and secret as possible.
Ask yourself if anyone will buy it. Mike gave the example of
collapsible paper basket invention. Ingenious, but not ultimately not
Can you patent your idea? Use non disclosure agreements (NDA’s) to
test out invention. They found a set of wheelchair users and gave them a
questionnaire to fill out.
Beware of patent agents as their time is so expensive, and they want
to write your application straight away, before searching the databases
to see if you qualify.
You only have one chance to get it right, so make use of help from Business & IP Centre and the UK IPO.
If you believe in your idea, don’t give up – make it happen.
Mike’s crunch point was when he discovered the chair wouldn’t run in a
straight line. It took a year to fix, but is now the best on the market
and can be used one handed wheelchair occupants.
The wheelchair took six years of his life, but was worth it, and now the demand is greater than they can produce.
The key is to find customers that love your product and competitors who can’t copy it.
Michael Pritchard, inventor of the Lifesaver bottle
Michael started off by agreeing with the Natalie and Mike that it does feel very lonely at times when you are inventing.
He told us the story by the Lifesaver, which came about because he
got angry during Boxing Day 2005 watching images of the Tsunami on
television. People were dying due to a lack of clean water, so he
decided to do something about it. But as is so often the way, work and
life took over, and he didn’t pursue the idea. Then came hurricane
Katrina, and the same problems again with lack of drinking water. He was
appalled that it took five days to get water to the thousands of people
stranded in the Superdome in New Orleans.
Needed a solution that did not require chemicals or power.
Michael then gave a very polished demonstration of the Lifesaver
bottle, using very murky and smelly water from the bottom of his pond.
He talked passionately about his recent visit to Pakistan and used
his own photos to show the extent of the flooding and its impact on the
He said how great it felt to realise that giving them a Lifesaver
jerry can took the place of a dependency on a regular supply of bottled
His motivation was a vision of his gravestone with nothing written on it. Also his wife told him to go for it.
Q. You on the stage tonight are the lucky ones.
A. Michael disagreed, the invention must meet and unmet need, but must also be commercial.
Jim Shaikh, the inventor of Yoomi, self heating baby bottle
Jim was the father of a three and half month weight premature baby.
Jim’s job was to feed the baby at night, but kept getting the
temperature wrong. Ended up with crying baby and crying wife upstairs.
It took a year to develop the concept, a bit like a combi-boiler and a
gel-pack hand warmer, re-packaged into the top of a baby feeding
It has taken six years from original idea to get into Boots and soon into Europe.
Marketing tag line ‘Inspired by Mum, Designed by Dad’.
Wants to build a brand as it is more valuable than individual products.
Jim learnt about IP in the Business & IP Centre, and raised
£140,000 from Angel investors. He made the very important point that a
patent is an asset that helps convince investors of value of product.
It took a year to get funding for the product.
Prototyping is expensive. Jim used it to prove to investors that his
product was a worthwhile investment. Took 3-4 prototypes to get the
You need a support network to help you out.
You will hit low points, but part of being an entrepreneur is being able to deal with problems.
You need to be aware that competitors will respond, in Jim’s case
with price cuts. How will you respond back? Do you have the flexibility?
Mark Sheahan, the Business & IP Centre’s Inventor in Residence
Mark used his immense experience of inventing and advising inventors to come up with a list of Do’s and Don’ts of inventing:
Keep your idea secret
Has to be better and or cheaper than the rest of the market
Have a professional patent search done
Review the prior-art, and carry on searching
Do your market research – players, size, prices
Is the market I am going into worth the time money and effort
Can you make the invention, and for the right price?
Look at how you can add value with your product
What is your USP? Why kill one rat when you can kill a hundred?
Helps to be optimistic
WIT – Whatever It Takes
Your enthusiasm will become infectious
Has to become the most important thing in your life
You need to become good at business
Understand the role of IP and patents
Secrets have a role to play
Don’t write your own patent – it is a false economy
Avoid sharks – not just the rogue Patent Promotion Agents
Listen to your gut feelings when dealing with people
Take on a business mentor with a couple of percentage of your business.
Create a SWAT analysis
Choose the right business model – draw up a partnership agreement
Don’t expect money from banks or government grants.
Make yourself investable – develop your marketing line
Understand contracts and letter writing
Get good at negotiating
Be realistic about the time scales – 15 years in the case of Dyson
Experience is rewarding even if you fail
Have fun with it
Q. When should one extend a British patent to a wider market?
A. Jim S – A difficult question as it is expensive to go wider. Need
to think about where your market will be. Babies are born across the
world. Strategy was to nationalise their patents in their biggest
markets (USA and Europe).
Michael P – Find out where your competitors are manufacturing and patent there.
Q. How can you use a patent as collateral?
A. Jim S – I put in my patent into the business in exchange for investors money.
Q. Why not licence your product?
A. Mark S – I prefer to licence my technologies.
A. Michael P – Increase the value, decrease the risk by outsourcing
the manufacture, but keeping control of selling and marketing of product
as it is so new in the market. Wanted to build the value first.
Q. How did you foster partnerships and collaboration to get your invention market?
A. Natalie E – all self done
A. Jim S – used friends and family as focus groups, but using NDA’
and CDA’s. Balance between protecting what you have but getting valuable
feedback from potential customers.
Q. The difference between being an inventor and an entrepreneur.
A. Natalie E – work to your strengths – go to trade shows to find the right
A. Mark S – licensing is a quicker and cheaper route
A. Michael P – get product into market as early as possible – don’t show a picture, have a prototype
A. Mike S – if you are going to licence your invention, make sure you
get a serious amount of money up front to ensure they are committed.