THE MOTHER OF NECESSITY

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Packaging Today profile.

In helping to cope with a parent’s arthritis, British inventor Mark Sheahan has come up with a revolutionary packaging concept that has won a string of awards throughout Europe and North America. Better still, it’s now on the verge of making a commercial breakthrough reports.  BY Des King

Naturally enough, most people would want to help make some of the everyday things of life a little easier for a parent or a partner unfortunate enough to be manually impaired.  It’s a deceptively basic but ingenious piece of plastics technology that is now set to re-mould packaging applications for a whole range of products as diverse as bathroom beads and pipe tobacco.

British inventor Mark Sheahan, however, is not like most people. When his mother – an arthritis sufferer - complained of the difficulties involved in opening a simple tin of shoe polish, his solution was to design the prototype for what many often frustrating years later has evolved into the patented Squeezeopen™ closure.

In essence, Sheahan’s Squeezeopen closure consists of an injection-moulded curved wall plastic lid that fits securely on top of a container; easily removed by applying a gentle pressure well within the grasp of all but the wholly disabled.  Re-closure is a simple process of lightly pressing the cap back onto the pack. A multi-purpose inner symmetrical ramp system guides the components together to form a perfect seal.

’This opening action will work up to the normal adult span of a hand, and down to a lipstick size,’ says Mark Sheahan. ‘Apart from its manageability, this must also be one of the cheapest packs to produce because you do not have to worry about threads any more.’

The road to market 

In the storybook tradition of so many originators of breakthrough ideas, Mark Sheahan was neither an inventor nor a packaging designer when he first picked up that tin of shoe polish. Something of a maverick, his CV includes a two-year spell as a croupier spinning the roulette wheel and dealing blackjack in a number of London casinos; running boat discos and private parties for the BBC staff, and writing and publishing a manual on how best to spray car bodies.

He did have connections with the plastics industry, which enabled him to attract the attention of packaging companies.

More symptomatic of the corporate minefield confronting a one-man operation was the cynicism displayed by a leading brand owner in the cosmetics sector. Having satisfied themselves that adoption of the Squeezeopen  technology would achieve a 1500 tonne/yr reduction in plastics material costs and more than a 50% reduction in the lid production time, they demanded a year’s exclusivity (plus consultancy) free, after which they would decide whether to adopt Mark Sheahan’s technology.

Commercial breakthrough

Sheahan took his idea to the States, where packaging manufacturer RXI plastics quickly snapped it up. It turned out to be one of the last actions taken by that company before it was itself acquired by the larger Silgan PET bottle-manufacturing group.

Mark Sheahan’s view is that no single company can service all potential user industries; so his strategy is to sell licences selectively on a designated product area basis. With 67 manufacturing units spread across North America, Silgan have sixteen categories to go at – which still leaves him with forty plus other areas of likely application for which he’s currently in talks with other potential US licensees.

Licences are allocated on a territorial basis, and he’s spent over £90K so far on securing patents worldwide, some with a life expectancy of up to twenty years. ‘It’s kept me poor,’ says Sheahan with a wry smile. That said it now looks as though after years of unsuccessfully knocking on doors it could end up making him rich.

Sheahan’s company Compgen is itself has gone into manufacture with a Squeezeopen promotional packs for use as desktop storage containers. An order has already been processed from no less a body than the British Library.  Mr Sheahan is adamant that this excursion into marketing giveaways in no way trivialises the pack. ‘On the contrary, it does exactly what I want it to do; it gets it used, and it gives me history. If people like it as much as our market research indicates then it’s much more likely to migrate into mainstream packaging as they become accustomed to its sheer simplicity as an opening mechanism.

‘That developing level of expectation from the consumer end makes my job that much easier to sell it in to brand owners and packaging manufacturers.’

By taking Squeezeopen to market himself, Mark Sheahan is actively looking at tamper-evident applications through the development of a CRC extension.  ’You could make a CRC by applying a simple press and squeeze pressure or, alternatively, only being able to operate the squeeze mechanism when, say, two arrows lined up.  Devices like that currently on the market are still beyond the capabilities of, say, an arthritis sufferer.’

Self-motivation

In Mark Sheahan’s conservative estimation, it’s taken many years and around £0.75m of his own money and Licensees to get his Squeezeopen  closure finally into production

During that time, the technology has picked up at least twenty major worldwide innovation awards.  This year alone taking the gold medal at the 31st International Exhibition of Inventions in Geneva and the premier prize from the Taiwan Innovation Association.  It collected two gold medals at the INPEX show plus grand prix award as overall winner in Pittsburgh.  Mark Sheahan himself ended up as winner of the Innovator of the Year title at the London Innovation Awards.

Consumer opinion and that of his peers is unanimously positive. Why then has it taken the packaging industry so long to latch on to a design that significantly reduces material usage, cuts production time in half, and unlike so many packs which can be as difficult to get into as Fort Knox, actually lives up to its promise?

‘Some of the people in the companies that I have approached don’t really want to take that risk, I get the feeling that they don’t want to rock the boat too much.  A couple of little savings here and there, that’s fine. But a major new packaging closure – well, their jobs could be in jeopardy if the sales don’t materialise.

An attendant problem is, of course, the categorisation of ease of accessibility packaging as solutions designed exclusively for a perceived minority group – not that an estimated 7M arthritis sufferers in the UK alone could be sensibly so designated.  Throw in the fact that the relatively cash-rich, time-poor 50+ age group now outnumbers its teenage children and grandchildren, and the market for openability assumes clear commercial viability.  Regardless of these bare statistics, two-thirds of the FTSE top 100 have no discernible strategies in place for what has to be a prime marketing opportunity, regardless of varying levels of manual impairment.

There is another reason for a closed mind-set when confronted with innovation – that is of existing capital investment, aligned to a blinkered desire to retain market control.

‘’Having a large market share can cause a problem,’’ notes Mark Sheahan.  ‘’The cost of change is expensive but nowhere near as expensive as standing still.

  
BRITISH LIBRARY CASE STUDY
 
BEWARE THE TIN MAN STORY
 

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