Sunday, February 25, 2007

Spirits of invention -

Spirits of invention
Area residents are snapping up patents in search of the Big Idea
By Phillip Reese - Bee Staff Writer
Published 12:00 am PST Friday, February 23, 2007

Jack Rice was a real estate agent until he had an idea.

While playing paintball with his son, he started tinkering with ways to make the guns shoot straighter.

Six years and a few patents later, Rice, in his mid-50s, is designing and producing paintball guns full time from a shop in his Elk Grove garage. He's not rich -- yet.

"If I could become the flavor of the month," he said, describing the oft-fickle preferences of teenage paintball players, "life would be good."

Since Rice had his epiphany, thousands more local residents have come up with the Big Idea -- the one that drives them to spend countless hours sketching, modifying and creating; the one that makes them or their companies put up tens of thousands of dollars, hire an intellectual property attorney and pursue a patent.

From 1997 to 2006, the number of patents granted to inventors and researchers in Sacramento, Yolo, Placer and El Dorado counties almost doubled, according to a Bee analysis of data from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Last year, roughly 900 patents were issued to local inventors, up from about 500 a decade ago.

Most of those patents went to individuals working on behalf of businesses, a sure sign that the region is fostering more innovation and creating more valuable, high-tech jobs, observers said.

"It's really a measure of research and development," said Andrew Hargadon, a professor of technology management at the University of California, Davis, who wrote "How Breakthroughs Happen." "They see a market. They develop a product. They take stock of what they now have and say, 'It's defensible -- it hasn't been done before.' "

Intel, UC Davis and Hewlett-Packard had the biggest share of new inventions in the region. They account for about 40 percent of the local patents last year, their breakthroughs ranging from a new type of voltage regulator to a new type of walnut tree.

Many of the remaining patents went to smaller businesses. And a lot went straight to individual inventors. For example, during the last six months of 2006, almost one in four patents granted to Sacramento residents went directly to an individual, not a business, The Bee's analysis found.

Some of those local inventions are fun -- a Christian board game. Some are practical -- a portable printer. And a few are more unusual -- a stroller for pets.

Michael Esparza's invention falls into the practical category. He got the idea about a decade ago when he was working in his garage and stepped out to check on his son. On returning to his task, Esparza looked toward the street through the open garage door. "I thought: What if something or someone (had come) in?" he recalled.

Esparza stopped to ponder his conundrum: He didn't want to work in his garage with the door shut, but he didn't want anything stolen if he had to leave quickly.

Ding! How about a garage screen door?

It would operate like a regular garage door, but on a separate track, he thought. It could be made with a variety of mesh and paneling, such as the kind that lets you see out but prevents others from seeing in.

Though he soon discovered he was not the first to seek a patent for such a door, Esparza says features -- a way of fastening the screen door to the regular garage door so the two can open and close together -- make his unique.

To date, Esparza has plunked down about $16,000. He finally received his patent in 2006 and now has someone working on a prototype. He's taken out a small-business license so he can hawk it.

Jack Rice's epiphany also came courtesy of his son.

About six years ago, Scott Rice, then 12, got sick of competitive soccer and took up paintball instead. Jack Rice started teaming up with his son on the course. But he found the equipment lacking.

"I could do this better myself," he remembers thinking.

So he built his first design for a paintball gun. Then he worked out some kinks and hooked up with a series of machinists.

Along the way, he spent a lot of money -- he estimates about half a million. Last year, he even sponsored a professional paintball team: the New England Hurricanes.

Rice's guns shoot about 25 rounds per second. They cost between $450 and $675 -- priced to compete with high-end guns already on the market. So far, Rice has made about 600 of the guns, and he went to Taiwan earlier this month to work out plans to produce thousands more.

But it wouldn't be possible without the two patents he got in 2004 and 2006.

The patent is the first, expensive step toward turning an idea into wealth. Sometimes, with an idea that utilizes existing technology, getting the patent is most of the work. But most of the time, the next step involves putting a design -- often just a series of detailed sketches -- into production.

If you are a regular Joe, that can take a lot of sweat and money, as Owen Baser learned.

Baser's invention is deceptively simple. It's a handle for home doors that doesn't utilize a knob or lever -- more like a car handle. A simple pull with a finger or two opens the door.

That's where the simplicity ends. Baser has traveled to India and China in search of a manufacturer. This month, 7,200 of the knobs are scheduled to arrive from China. He's selling them all from a Web site for, he says, about $35. And he's scheduled to be profiled on the History Channel's "Modern Marvels" series.

Baser, 75, reckons he's spent about $500,000 developing his idea and producing the handles -- all from his pocket. "That's how it goes," said the retired building contractor. "We're still spending it."

The government, at times, supports these quests, and federal research grant money has flowed into UC Davis in the past decade. About $750,000 went to Daniel Ferenc, a physics professor working on a radiation-detection device that can be mass-produced.

His machines -- about the size of a television with some of the same flat-screen technology -- will cost about $1,000 to produce, up to 100 times cheaper than current devices. That means, thanks to Ferenc, inspectors could have better access to tools they need to check large containers coming into America's ports -- a big concern among those who fear a nuclear device entering the country. It also could help with medical imaging.

"My idea was not to come up with something very difficult, but to combine different technologies that already exist," Ferenc said.

UC Davis has been on a tear recently -- the number of patent applications coming out of the university has doubled in the past 10 years. That's thanks to a push by the college to encourage researchers to do more than just publish their findings, said Alan Bennett, associate vice chancellor for research at the university.

But experts say the growing number of Sacramento-area inventions need to be put into perspective. The Sacramento region did generate about as many patents last year as Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas combined, but it didn't produce nearly as many patents as the small, Silicon Valley town of Mountain View, home to Google and other high-tech operations.

"We're always going to have a problem being so close to the Silicon Valley," said Hargadon, noting that the types of companies opening satellite offices in the Central Valley also lure the majority of Northern California inventors to the Bay Area.

Either way, the trends brought about by Ferenc, Rice, Baser, Esparza and thousands of others show little sign of abating. Last year's 900 or so patents were an annual record for the area, federal data show.

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