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Anatomy of an Invention: The Gigalight

Essay By: Robert Fontaine
Non-fiction



A true story of computer accessory innovation.


Submitted:Jan 27, 2013    Reads: 32    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   


Genesis

The first house Regina and I lived in after getting married was a modest little adobe structure in Las Cruces, New Mexico. At the time the place was just big enough to contain our meager possessions. When I say "our" possessions, I mostly mean "her" possessions. I could fit almost everything I owned comfortably in the back seat of my Nissan Pulsar. Consequently, the computer was relegated to a small table in our bedroom. A desk lamp provided enough light to compute by but proved to be more than a bit of a distraction for the person attempting to sleep. This problem followed us to the beach house in the Bahamas. What we desperately needed was a light source that would illuminate only the keyboard and the surrounding area, leaving the rest of the room in relative darkness. Upon returning back home to the US, we moved to a slightly larger place but I was still bent on finding a solution for the problem that had plagued us the previous few years.

The internet was still in its infancy; computer content and accessories were still being explored. The printer stand was the one hot item that everyone had to have to keep the perforated paper that fed through it, tucked neatly underneath. I set forth under those conditions in an attempt to discover a lamp that would allow a restful night's sleep for one person while the other could be productive until the wee hours (or play games, your choice of which you choose to insert here). I turned to the best, and most common, source at the time: catalogs. I found equipment lights and goosenecks for tractors, spotlights, and a few other options but nothing that did exactly what I was looking for. I felt that the best option from that moment forward was that I had to make my own.

The Development Process

I had two options in pursuit my goal: I could either make something from a collection of parts, or I could modify an existing product to suit my need. I had an electronics background so I set out to the local electronics store and bought a bag full of light emitting diodes (LEDs), a power supply, and a few other components. The prototype process provided valuable insight into what I needed to achieve. If the light was too high, there were reflections in the monitor. Too low and your hands would hit the light and would knock it out of place. Improper locations yielded distracting shadows across the keyboard. I eventually had a working model that consisted of a strip of LEDs stuck underneath the front edge of the monitor. One problem quickly surfaced in that if I moved the keyboard the empty space under the monitor was brilliantly illuminated and I couldn't see the keyboard again.

The light had to be portable. After approximately three weeks of tinkering in the evenings after work, I abandoned the LED idea all together. Not because I could not make it work, but because I had encountered a small battery operated book light while loitering at the bookstore up the road. The body of the unit was about five inches long and wide enough to contain a few double-A batteries. It also had an arm with a small shrouded incandescent light that elevated to illuminate what you were reading. "Aha!" I said to myself. I bought two, took them home, and quickly dismantled each of them.

I installed a power supply connector and a proper rocker switch in one of them and ran two wires to the second one through the ends of the body. I mounted both book lights end to end, on a six by twelve inch piece of plexiglass plate; arms rotating upward at each end. I plugged it in, turned out the lights in the room, and turned the device on. The joy was overwhelming. I called my wife into the room whereby she cocked her head, said "hmm!" and left, relatively unimpressed.

Mission accomplished. I later decided to add another switch to the base and connected a wire to a module attached to the printer. I quickly became enamored with the simplistic and useful design. I showed friends who claimed it didn't suck so I thought I may have an actual marketable idea.

What to Do With It

I went back to the bookstore and bought a few books related to patenting and marketing an invention. I had the same question all new inventors have: How do I protect the greatest idea in the world? I found that most inventions die with their inventor because they are held onto so close that the people with the ability to assist in bringing an invention to market never find out the product exists. It was also clear, early in the process, that companies are reluctant to even look at your new invention for fear that you will sue them if they are currently developing a similar product. However, I was not making any money off of my invention and future sales were less than bleak so, even if someone did steal the idea, I was only out about $20. Plus I would sue the pants off of anyone if I could prove they got the idea from my product. The last issue was solved through a common document all companies have and requires a signature before they will even discuss the invention: a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA).

The next decision was to either go it alone, try to patent and produce more of these lights myself, and sell the idea; or license the idea to someone else. While I knew there was a market for the light, I did not have the resources to pursue the manufacturing and distribution so I made the decision to attempt to license the light and, if someone wanted to offer to buy it outright, I would entertain the offer.

Finding the Right People

Common sense suggested that I seek out and identify companies that produced computer peripherals and/or lighting companies that produced small lighting products. I scanned the packaging of the original book lights used in my design to provide insight into the manufacturer. That company ended up being a distributor for Chinese-made products that had no in-house development team. Short of Chinese contacts, I moved on. Next stops on the journey were office supply stores to discover companies that were producing similar items. Wandering the aisles and perusing their products, I collected five or six prominent manufacturer names and addresses as potential targets.

I had formulated a marketing sheet, detailing the features and benefits of the invention and a sheet of hand drawn sketches depicting various iterations of the product. I decided not to submit a picture of my invention because I wanted to leave the reader free to imagine the possibilities. There was a chance that I hadn't explored the full potential of the product and I felt that if I had provided a picture the audience would be left with a static impression that would diminish the concept.

Armed with my list of company names, marketing and model sheets, and a prototype, I began making phone calls to everyone on my list. I began by asking questions regarding the organization's development capabilities. If they had one, could they transfer me to someone who could speak with me? 'Do you accept submissions?' was usually the follow up. I was quite surprised how easy and accessible the decision makers were. In the instances where the responses were negative I always made sure to ask if they could provide a lead to another organization that would be able to assist me in my quest. I was unknowingly networking and was eager to talk to anyone who would listen.

A few organizations did respond positively, mailed me their NDA for signature, and provided submission instructions (email existed but was limited to primarily internal communication). The rejections began arriving as I continued to connect with more companies. During one of the conversations someone asked if I had tried Catalina Lighting in Miami, Florida. I had not, was my response. I called the company and was soon connected with Mike Stotts in their marketing department. I mentioned that so and so with XYZ company had suggested that I contact him in regard to a new product idea and would like to request an opportunity to show it to him. I also stated that I felt strongly enough about the idea that I was willing to fly to Miami to meet with him at his discretion. He mentioned that he would be visiting a Lowes store in Mississippi in two weeks and, since I was in Louisiana, why not have a meeting there. The excitement had begun to build.

The Meeting

I woke up early and enthusiastic about finally being able to display my invention to someone who might be able to actually do something with it. I played out numerous demonstration scenarios in my head during the three hour drive to Mississippi. I arrived about eleven that morning and found Mike digging through boxes in the lighting section of all places. He introduced himself and uttered the immortal words "Whaddya got, kid?" I pulled out the light base, printer cube light, and power supply from the box, and set them on a store display shelf. He looked curiously at it as I found an outlet at the back of the shelf and clicked the switch to the on position. I had seen that look before as he stared at it, cocked his head, and said "Hmm!" He fiddled with the arms and stared at it some more. A store employee happened by and Mike called and asked him what he thought of it. I explained to the employee that it was for a computer keyboard. The employee cocked his head, said "Hmm! I like it," then walked off.

Mike asked if I could have another one of these on his desk by Tuesday of the following week. I responded with one word: Absolutely! He also wanted my one and only prototype to bring back and send to China so they could start reverse engineering it for production. I answered again in the affirmative.

He was confident in stating that the normal license agreements for his company were one percent and he was willing to make that offer on the spot. He would be able to have a check within the mail next week for $7,500 and royalty checks would commence once that amount had been reimbursed. From what I had read, license agreements normally ranged from one to three percent. He was there ready to make a deal and I was ready to make a deal, so we made a deal. It still needed to be blessed by their legal department but we essentially had a deal; all while standing in the center of an aisle in a Mississippi Lowes.

The Relationship

Countless tales exist of companies taking advantage of the unsuspecting entrepreneur and the result is rarely positive. Concern began to emerge during the drive home to Louisiana; without my favorite keyboard light. There was no NDA or anything in writing at that point. My focus was to build another one and get it in a FedEx box by Monday. If I were to get swindled, at least I knew how to make another one (by then I was getting good at it); right after I called a lawyer.

I completed, boxed, and shipped the unit as requested, and a few days later I received a letter from the Catalina Lighting Company attorneys with a check for $7,500. The agreement looked surprisingly similar to the ones I had read in the books. It also noted that they would be applying for the patent on my behalf and all rights would revert back to me when they had no further use for the product. I signed and returned the documents and then waited to see what would happen. In the interim I went out and bought a new big screen television.

The Product

A few months passed with no communication until one day a box arrived at the door. In it, surrounded by clear plastic packaging, was my light, my invention. The company decided to call it The Gigalight. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall during that meeting. It was molded in white plastic but very closely resembled the prototypes I had built. I would go as far as to say that the manufacturer recognized the book light design and used the same molds.

Shortly thereafter, I happened upon one of my lights while walking through a Wal-Mart and noticed an advertisement for it in the Sunday fliers for an office supply store. I pointed it out to a woman bystander, "I made that!" She shot me a look of disbelief and went about her business. A few months later, I received word of the United States' patent approval in my name, shortly followed by the European patent approval.

Epilogue

By the end of the run I had received royalty checks amounting to two to three thousand dollars every four months for a little over a year. The amounts eventually dwindled and I believe the last one I received after two years in was for about eighteen dollars. The product had run its course.

Technology and other competitors entered the market and within a short time I began to see different products that accomplished the same task as my light. Lights emerged for gaming devices, backlighting became possible, and USB powered lights became more prevalent. I accepted the change and let the product fade into obscurity.

I contacted Catalina Lighting about ten years later to ask about their plan for the product but could find no one involved with or who even remembered the light. A call to their attorney reconnected a few synapses with her but she said she had no further information. She asked if I wished to pursue the issue further I declined, opting to let it take its place in the annals of history.

I recently searched the United States Patent and Trademark Office and found it listed in the "Expired Patents" section. The patent does show up in a Google search for patent number 5,868,487. One interesting note on the patent is that Kent Polley is listed as one of the inventors as well. I can explain.

Back in the Bahamas, my friend, Kent, and I were sitting around drinking one night and wondered what it was required to actually form a corporation. We didn't make, or do, anything to warrant a company but beer and curiosity got the best of us, so we did a little research on our various trips back and forth to Florida. We found the necessary paperwork and how easy it was and, soon enough, we incorporated. We settled on the name "Brinkland, Inc." It is a hybrid of Christie Brinkley and Kathy Ireland (I chose the Brink part and he chose the Land part). We thought it was just as good a name as the construction company he was doing business as in New Mexico: Rapid Erections.

There were grand visions of the Brinkland Building towering above the New York skyline. Mind you we still didn't have any idea what the corporation would actually do to make money. I discussed the light with Kent and we decided to use Brinkland as the licensor of the product and see where it went. Brinkland eventually became an annoyance and we dissolved the corporation, relinquishing all light product rights to me. By that time there was no more revenue being generated and we were left to do meaningless paperwork.

In the end I have the satisfaction of knowing that something I created to make my wife happy had served its purpose and provided some value for society during an exciting time in innovation. I recently had a discussion with an old friend and the subject of the light came surfaced. He told me he still had his and continues to rely on it regularly. That made me smile again.





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