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Feds seek to nurture basement inventors

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Now-profitable products such as skateboards were invented  by amateurs.

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Now-profitable products such as skateboards were invented by amateurs.

OTTAWA -- The federal government wants to tap the skills of obscure basement inventors and turn their tinkering into innovative consumer products.

A new survey for Industry Canada has found almost 13 per cent of Canadians are so-called private innovators, who have improved on consumer goods or created new products in the last three years.

Recent research in the United States and elsewhere has found similar numbers of ordinary basement tinkerers, regarded by some as a talent pool that consumer-products firms need to harness to find fresh profits.

"The consumer innovations uncovered by researchers abroad arise in many sectors, including software, gaming, sporting equipment and automotive," says an Industry Canada description of the survey project.

"Consumers either freely shared their innovations with other consumers or with producers, or carried on as entrepreneurs themselves."

A landmark 2011 research paper by lead author Eric von Hippel, an MIT professor, argued consumer-products companies need to pay more attention to these amateur inventors.

"Companies will have to help their own product developers look at consumer-developed innovations with new eyes -- not just as poorly engineered amateurish efforts," says the paper.

History is full of consumer innovations that went from obscurity to millions of dollars of sales in short order.

Among them, the dishwasher, invented in 1886 by a wealthy matron in Illinois who wanted to avoid the chipped dishes that were the inevitable result when her servants did the washing. Josephine Cochrane made extra dishwashers for friends, and eventually created a company that became part of Whirlpool Corp.

Skateboards began as roller-skate wheels nailed to boards by teenagers, a homegrown product later adopted and improved by manufacturers for profit.

Industry Canada paid $80,000 to a survey firm, Ekos Research Associates Inc., to determine how many Canadians were themselves making the products of tomorrow in their workshops. Ekos then interviewed some 1,000 so-called consumer innovators.

The report, delivered in March, found Canada's basement inventors are primarily young males with degrees in science or technical disciplines.

Those who immigrated were more likely to have come from the United States or South Asia. Most worked alone. Almost nobody patented their inventions, but created products solely for their own use.

"The majority of consumer innovators have developed a product that is essentially the same in functionality as other similar products or services that are available in the market (40 per cent) or an improvement to something that already exists (28 per cent)," says the report, obtained under the Access to Information Act.

"Most consumers developed their innovation in a relatively short period of time, averaging 30 hours, and six in 10 spent money to develop their innovation."

The report does not describe individual inventions, but notes most of them were household fixtures and furnishings, followed by sports equipment and products for children or education.

The least common types were medical products and computer software.

Parallel surveys in the United States, Japan and Britain have found demographic similarities with Canada's innovators.

The range of amateur products in those three countries was broad, from a rice pressure-cooker used in a microwave oven to a line of clothing for amputees that can be put on and taken off using one hand.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 11, 2013 B19

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