Britain is brimming with inventors, but few win backing for their ideas at home. From the clockwork radio to the Cyclone vacuum cleaner, products are more likely to see the light of day if they are taken abroad. Helen Jones asks why

The image of an inventor is someone who appears to be two bricks short of a load, with wild hair, windmilling arms and a Viennese accent. No wonder marketing departments find it hard to take them seriously,” says Trevor Baylis who has invented a clockwork radio, which is in production in South Africa, and will be available in UK shops in time for Christmas.

Baylis and his invention were rejected by the marketing departments of countless manufacturers. Now, however, his Baygen Freeplay radio is providing vital information to the Third World, where batteries are expensive and scarce. He has the backing of South African President Nelson Mandela and his invention has so impressed the British Government that it is planning to exhibit it in embassies and high commissions around the world. Baylis also has a list of orders from upmarket retailers such as Harrods and The Conran Shop, where British consumers who are prepared to spend 79.99 can buy the product and through their purchase subsidise sales to Africa.

“No one would take me seriously. I used to phone companies to pitch the idea and you’d hear them say ‘I’ve got this nutty guy on the phone – something about a clockwork radio’,” says Baylis. “Although I had to put up with humiliation, I’ve got an ego and wouldn’t give up. But it wasn’t until I got some publicity and backing from accountancy firm Stoy Hayward and brand consultancy CLK that the whole thing could get off the ground.”

Baylis is one of the lucky ones. The UK is packed full of inventors. Some are the mad professors of popular mythology who produce mind-boggling products in their sheds that will never see the light of day. Others produce potentially world-beating products that UK companies are not interested in. James Dyson who invented the hugely successful Cyclone vacuum cleaner is an example. The product is only available today because a Japanese company was prepared to invest in it after British manufacturers turned it down.

Ian McGowan, new product manager of International Product Design, which helps inventors market their products, says: “The British are famous for inventing things and equally famous for doing nothing with them.” He adds: “British companies and marketing departments tend to concentrate on core business and not take risks on inventions. I know of one case where an inventor took something to a large manufacturer who thought it was great but the R&D department dismissed it because they hadn’t thought of it – they were just looking after their own jobs.” As a result IPD specialises in marketing British inventions in the US, where McGowan says companies tend to be more accepting of innovation.

It is a process that Chris Wood, CLK’s managing director, knows well. He says: “There is precious little research and even less development in the UK.”

But he stresses that the only inventions that can be successfully marketed are those for which there is a genuine need: “It is no good just having a good idea, consumers have to want to buy it.”

He cites the disposable razor as a good example of a product that met consumer need and that was introduced at the right moment. “It captured a moment when consumers began to seek greater convenience in their lives. They may not have known that they needed a disposable razor until they tried it,” he says.

Richard Seymour of product design specialist Seymour Powell agrees: “An invention has to meet a real need. Sir Clive Sinclair is a good example – the pocket calculator was a brilliant invention and you can’t imagine how you ever managed without it. But his next product, the Sinclair C5, was a different matter.”

Seymour and Powell do not consider themselves inventors but nevertheless have created a number of successful products, including the world’s first cordless kettle, the InterCity 250 locomotive for British Rail and a Bantam motorbike for the Nineties for classic bike company BSA. “We don’t invent things in a light-bulb-flashing kind of way,” says Seymour. “We set up conditions from which ideas evolve like primordial soup. Then we take them to companies and develop them for them, or companies come to us with a problem and we find a solution.”

He says of the process: “Having an idea, breathing life into it and bringing it successfully to market is one of the most exhilarating and nerve-wracking ways of making a living you can imagine.”

“Nerve-wracking” is a good way to describe Will King’s experience. In 1993, he developed a shaving oil made of a blend of aromatherapy oils to combat razor burn. “Friends tried it and found that it worked and I knew that it was a winner.” But King’s biggest problem was getting it listed in major multiples. “Retailers want to know that you have a big ad budget behind you before they will even consider giving it shelf space. A dozen buyers in the UK determine the success of any product in this sector”. He adds that another problem was that suppliers of bottles and blister cards are used to dealing with large volumes, not in quantities of 500 that he specified. “So it cost me in total nearly 5,000 which was a substantial initial outlay.”

King filled by hand the first 5,000 bottles in his girlfriend’s kitchen with a pump he bought in the Body Shop. He then set about distributing samples. One reached Harrods chairman Mohamed al-Fayed who liked it and agreed to stock it. Boots also listed it. The product – King of Shaves – is now available in most multiples and King is working on his next project – a sunscreen product which will be available next year.

Successfully marketing an invention is risky, time-consuming and can be very expensive – developing prototypes and getting a patent can cost anything up to 50,000. As McGowan says: “Invention development can seriously damage your wealth.”

Having developed something that you think is marketable and meets a genuine need, you then have to ensure that the idea is not stolen by others. “Don’t tell anyone about it, not the boys down the pub not even your children until you have protected that idea as your own,” says Baylis.

Wood adds: “I feel really strongly that it is imperative to get to market first but not too early. It is vital to be the first but that should not be at the expense of quality. Speed to market is all very well but the product has to be absolutely right.”

Even when you have successfully invented and marketed a product the problems are not all over. Baylis says: “You always get some smart arse who comes up to you and says ‘I thought of that ten years ago. I could have done that.’ But the point is that he didn’t do it and I did and at the end of the day it is worth all the setbacks.”


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