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What makes an inventor tick?

Updated Friday 2nd November 2007

As part of ‘Britain’s Big Ideas Boom’, The Money Programme team filmed interviews with a number of experts on invention. Here you can watch longer versions of two of those interviews.

Firstly, here's James Fleck, Dean and Professor of Innovation Dynamics at the Open University Business School.

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Anyone can be an inventor

We’re moving towards a time when people using products or making, doing things can spot opportunities that can then change or contribute back to either improving the eventual product or, indeed, generating new products, and in a sense Dyson is an example of that. He was a quintessential user, ultimately, and he saw that in using the vacuum cleaner, it didn’t work very well when it got clogged up, that's a problem he sought to solve. So that, in a sense, is rather different from the industry itself investing in research and ending up with new products.

The new Victorian era

That's what we’re seeing here, is really just a return to the terrific enthusiasm that took place in Victorian times for lots of gadgets and physical inventions, and there was a terrific popular interest at that time, so we’re seeing a sort of return to popularity, popular culture of innovation, if you like, that has gone away for a while when big industry captured, seemed to capture, all of the ideas and no one thought they could make a dent, so I think that's a good thing.

Patenting strategies

It’s not up to the Patent Office to decide whether something’s a good idea because it may be that you’ve got an idea, and rather than revealing all to your competitors, you may choose to patent in segments, if you like, so each segment may not seem to be such a good idea but it may be a crucial element in the overall device that you’re producing, and that way, so it’s not really up to the Patent Office to say whether this is sensible or not, it is really for the person patenting to decide that this does make sense and they’re willing to invest in that idea.

Employee or freelance?

There may be dilution of your ownership rights, if you’re working in a company, but that has to be set against the fact that if you don’t have the resources to fully explore whether your idea is novel, and to develop it properly, then you’ve got nothing, and it’s the old story about 100 per cent of nothing is still nothing for the person who doesn’t have that support. So I think, probably, for most people, to have the support in a working context is an advantage rather than disadvantage, providing they’ve got a reasonable agreement with their employer about sharing the results from any spectacular patent and activity they might come up with.

The creative process

Creativity is often seen as having a blank sheet of paper, but in fact creativity is often enhanced by having restrictions, constraints aid creativity. It’s when you’ve got a very difficult or restrictive problem that if you can crack that, and that takes terrific creativity, you’ve got a good idea, you’re going to be able to make a lot of money out of that if you can solve it.

What makes inventors tick

A passionate involvement, a commitment to the idea is absolutely necessary. If you just want to make money, then the thing to do is not to go in for ideas or technology but to invest in houses or property or something else like that, or go and work in the City of London, not invest your effort in making inventions.

Secondly, Sir James Dyson, respected inventor of the Dual CycloneTM bagless vacuum cleaner, shares his views.

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Can anyone make it as an inventor?

It can happen, and it does happen, but it takes a lot of determination. And I think it usually is more likely to happen if the person who has the idea actually goes off and makes it, rather than trying to persuade what are quite often disinterested manufacturers to do it.

Advice for inventors

Well the first thing to do is to reduce your invention to practice, as they say, build a model of it, a working model to show and prove that it works, and then take that and your drawings to a very good patent agent, and get it patented.

The myth of the Eureka moment

Well I’m sorry to disappoint but there was never a Eureka moment, I mean I wish there was. This idea that you have an idea in the bath is completely mythical. What actually happens is that you start off with often a very bad idea, and then you build lots of prototypes, lots of models to try and make it work, and what you actually end up with at the end is something completely different to the idea you started with, but it works, and you’re so exhausted, you don’t even think of it as a Eureka moment. So you get there by processes. I mean you can describe a story afterwards which makes it sound like a Eureka moment but it never happens like that.

Secrets of inventing, the Dyson way

A lot of people would follow the logical path, and that's of course what most people do, I always like thinking of the opposite of the correct way to do something to start with, I call it ‘wrong thinking’, because it sets you off on a different channel. And okay, it’s not, it doesn’t work, the first thing doesn’t work but it starts you thinking in a different way, and if you do several bits of ‘wrong thinking’, you end up not thinking like everybody else, so following a different path and making your own discoveries. And (a) that's much more exciting and stimulating, but (b) you’re much more likely to come up with something no one else has ever thought of.

What makes an inventor?

I think having ideas, the sort of person who sees something that doesn’t work properly or isn’t very good, and his brain starts ticking over, or her brain starts ticking over, to make something, the solution that would work, that's important, so curiosity. Then willing to be patient, and to do lots and lots of tests, and then to enjoy doing those tests, that's really important. And then I think having just dogged determination and being like a rubber ball, every time you’re knocked down just bounce back up.

How to get a new product onto the market

If you explain to, in my case, big retailers who I was trying to sell to, who said, we’re not going to take your company because you aren’t a brand, if you start to talk to them honestly and say look I haven’t got any money for advertising but I think I have got a good product, do you agree it’s a good product - if you open your heart to them, not everybody but some people will want to help you.

What’s wrong with the patent system?

It really upsets me that you have to pay patent renewal fees for each patent, in each country, every year. And that's really a tax on innovation, or alternatively that patent offices make a profit, which they do, a very large profit. So the money, the cost of it is a big grievance for me. Not for myself but for small inventors and small businesses, I mean they can’t afford it.

How Britain is falling behind in engineering

We only produce 24,000 engineering graduates a year, and we have vacancies for 37,000, meanwhile China’s producing 350,000 engineers a year, India a reputed two million, so we’re vastly under producing engineers, and what this means, of course, is that we are filing fewer and fewer patents. We file a fifteenth of the patents that Japan files, and a twelfth of the patents that America files, and a third of the patents that France files. So our technology base is shrinking very, very fast, and I don’t think it needs to. We did a survey amongst school children and found that two thirds of them, aged about fourteen or fifteen, wanted to do engineering at GCSE level, and they can’t. So what you’re seeing is there's a great interest amongst children in engineering, which gets stamped out through the education system and later on in life. But it’s going to, we’ll end up as a nation that doesn’t make anything, that simply trades in financial services and the media.

Britain’s lack of engineering culture

It’s never been particularly part of our culture. In France, engineering is the highest profession, and has been for 250 years. It’s clearly very important for the Chinese and the Japanese. But, in Britain, well, I don’t think we think very much of it. I mean I remember at school, I was told that if I didn’t work hard I’d end up in a factory. Well I have ended up in a factory, but the point being that engineering and manufacturing is seen as sort of dirty, Dickensian thing.

Job satisfaction

The most exciting bit for me is developing technology and suddenly seeing it, after a lot of stress and difficulties, working, I think that's the most exciting bit. I mean the next bit is a huge unknown, you know, will people like this, will people want it, will they buy it, will they pay for it? So that's all, it’s very interesting seeing all that pan out, but for me the most exciting bit is making the technology work as we wanted it to.

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