The Guardian: Marianne Barriaux

From the garden shed to the British Library: the nutty professor gets a makeover

Mention the word "inventor" and the image of an Einstein-like figure locked away in his garden shed springs to mind. So it is surprising to see Mark Sheahan, the British Library's first 'Inventor in Residence', breeze into the lobby in a smart, freshly pressed shirt and tie.

"I like to think inventors have moved on from the garden shed," he says. "To a degree, we've moved out of the shed and we're now in the office. I'm not sure we like the office, but we're doing it because we have to adapt."

At that, he opens his briefcase, and an inordinate amount of plastic containers tumble out.

Sheahan, a former computer wiz/croupier/author, is the inventor of Squeezeopen, a plastic container that won him the accolade of 'Inventor of the Year'. He will be sharing his tips and experiences with aspiring inventors at the British Library from next month.

The library's business and intellectual property centre, launched in March last year to help small- and medium-sized enterprises as well as individual entrepreneurs, houses 57m patents. Every year, it receives 1m new patents, about 90% of which are filed by businesses. The remaining 10% belong to inventors.

Inventor in Residence for British Library

Mark Sheahan 'Inventor In Residence' link to British Library

In his free, one-on-one sessions with novice inventors, Sheahan will attempt to lay down the steps necessary to transform an idea into a commercially viable product. He got the idea for Squeezeopen when he saw his mother, who suffered from arthritis, struggle to open a pot of polish. "She got more polish on the floor than she did on her shoes," he says.

His technology - which can be applied to plastic containers for sweets, face cream, polish, even snuff is being explored by US firms and a big Japanese company. He cannot disclose the names of these groups, but lets slip that one was the Silgan Plastic company.

This year should see his first royalties arrive, and with the six-figure upfront payment he has already received Sheahan is set to become a lot more financially stable than he once was.

In the 10 years since his mother struggled with that tin, he has experienced financial difficulty (he once had to sell his car to pay for a patent), failed deals and attempts to steal his invention.

First step

According to Sheahan, the first and most important step is to make sure the product has not already been invented. To do this, aspiring inventors should go to a proper registered patent attorney, the British Library or the Intellectual Property Office.

This may sound blindingly obvious but Sheahan recalls a company that "spent tens of thousands of pounds" updating its technology. "Then they thought they should check and do a search. They did, and they found exactly what they had just made. It made what they had just done unprotectable. The worst part of it was it was theirs in the first place." A former employee had got there first.

Sheahan recommends going through a patent agent - more costly but more reliable. Depending on the nature of the invention, he says it costs from 800 to 5,000 to file an application. And then inventors have to spend more money on getting their patent granted. The trick, he says, is to get large organisations involved early on.

His mantra is to have the three Ps: be professional, use professionals, and associate with professionals. For example, Compgen, his company, has a former Ernst & Young director as one of its shareholders. And in his deals with the US and Japanese firms, he brought lawyers into the negotiations at a very early stage.

Sheahan says it is also very important to get the product known, and one of the methods is to put it on show at international fairs.

But, he says, "beware of the tin man". He tells of a fair in Geneva where he went to promote his easy-open container. "At the show a tall man came on to my stand. He casually speculated whether my patented Squeezeopen containers could be made in tin. I explained to him that yes, they could, but it would not be anywhere near as good as plastic.

"Trying to gauge his interest, I asked him for a business card. He turned on his heels and slinked away."

A tin container constructed on the same principle as the Squeezeopen technology is now on the market.

But Sheahan insists it is no use being paranoid. "The worst scenario I think I ever saw was a chap who had a chain around his neck, through his arm, and on to his briefcase, which contained an invention. I got the feeling he wasn't quite there."

The best protection against theft, he says, is to have filed a patent application before showing the invention to anyone and get a confidentiality agreement signed with an interested company.

Out of all the hopefuls who file a patent, only one in a thousand, Sheahan estimates, will see their product developed commercially and, more crucially, make decent money out of it.

But it is possible. Sir James Dyson made it with his bagless vacuum cleaner, and is now ranked 59th on the Sunday Times rich list with a personal fortune estimated at 1.1bn. The family of Ruben Rausing, who founded Tetra Pak, has an estimated fortune of 5.4bn.

As Sheahan gets up to return to his inventing - he is busy with a child-resistant, easy-to-open plastic container - he has one last piece of advice: don't start in the UK.

"The only area I've had problems with is the UK. Larger companies are run by financial people. They don't want to take the risk. I can tell quite often by just meeting them that they may want the technology but don't want to pay for it. I don't want to say this but with my experience, I'm not even interested in exhibiting here."

At that he walks off. Back to the office and not, he insists, the garden shed.


Patent gold: Five of Mark Sheahan's favourite invention

Personal computers
I have been involved with computers all my working life, from mainframe to mini-frame then PC. It has been an incredible journey of development and discovery. If used properly, it can free you from repetition and be empowering.

Child-resistant packaging
They may get bad press - for instance, being difficult for adults to open as well as for children - but many more people are walking around today because of them.

Air-cushioned trainers
Most of my old boxing and running partners have shot knees (or indeed, plastic cartilages) from pounding pavements.

Whistling kettles
I cannot tell how many kettles I burned out before using one of these. Dumping and buying a new one was almost a weekly ritual.

This may be deemed politically incorrect but when you consider life without plastic you soon realise just how versatile and important it has become.

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