BEWARE THE TIN MAN

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Mark Sheahan, inventor of the award winning packaging container ‘SqueezeopenTM’ explains why showing other people your idea can sometimes be detrimental to your wealth…

After winning two of the most coveted awards in the UK - ‘Invention of the Year’ and personally 'Innovator of the Year' the following year - for inventing and commercialising a new plastic easy-open and close packaging container called Squeezeopen™, I decided to promote my product abroad.  There was nothing to lose, or so I thought!

I identified and pre-booked a stand at an exhibition in Geneva - the ‘31st International Exhibition of Inventions’ - which sounded ideal.  It was very expensive but promised to attract up to 76,000 international visitors. 

Mistakenly, I then tried to get some form of DTI support. Surely they would want to help, wouldn’t they?  Well no, apparently not.  The exhibition was not on their support list and when the Director General of Innovation, no less, uses the terms “Is what it is, I am afraid’’ and ‘’Has not been part of DTI policy for a long time’’ as if these were legitimate reasons for not doing something, then you know it is time to move on. 

The show proved very disappointing, being half empty, or half full, depending on your view.  Whether this was due to bad timing, colliding with the height of the Iraqi war or dubious mathematics by the organizers, I am not sure.  Plus - something that I was really not accustomed to - many of the exhibitors and visitors seemed ''stand-off-ish''.  Again, a factor may have been the Iraqi conflict considering that a large proportion of them were French, German and Russian – the anti-war Countries.  Being billeted in an Arab run hotel, where the TV in the reception lobby was tuned into an Arab station 24 hours a day, did not help my feelings of isolation much either.  At one stage, because of the above and the fact that many of the exhibitors had been heavily subsidised by their own governments, I did consider taking down my Union Flag, but did not.   

Getting on to one of the main reasons for this story.  At the show a tall, skinny, distinctive (odd) looking man came onto my stand.  Dressed in what can only be described as 80’s retro, he casually speculated in broken English whether my plastic 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. Tin has not got the same shape memory as plastic and easily gets out of shape in use, or damaged in transit, and the seal quality would be poor.  Trying to gauge his interest I asked him for a business card.  He turned on his heels and slowly slinked away.  I did not realise it then but I may have been mugged in broad daylight.  I certainly could not comment myself but you can make up your own mind.  An explanation of how, and if, will follow as this story unfolds.

The exhibition was not a total disappointment as my Squeezeopen invention won a gold medal, with a special accreditation from the international jury.  More touchingly, the Taiwan Invention Association separately presented me with their premier award for invention; and pinned what looked liked a war medal on my chest. Though I was very happy to receive it,  I was worried that I’d wind up looking like a British war hero! (as it was hard enough being British at this openly hostile venue).  It was also very embarrassing when they asked to meet the English delegation, err! That will be me then! 

One month later, not put off by my experiences in Geneva, I exhibited at the INPEX show in Pittsburgh.  It is America's largest trade show and inventors conference. Squeezeopen was the only British entry from over 1,500 other inventions shown.  

It was a large financial risk and needless to say that it was not on the DTI’s exhibitions support list again!  They did suggest, however, that I apply for a new ‘pilot’ solo show grant apparently about to be launched, only to be told at the last minute it had been delayed and, therefore, I was not eligible!  Having looked at a draft of the terms and conditions for this, yet another evasive grant, they could keep it anyway.  Do not misunderstand me, I am sure that the DTI must carry out some good work? 

The contrast between Pittsburgh and Geneva was absolutely amazing.  If anything the Americans were over friendly, once on my stand I could not get them off ''stand-on-ish'' and, as in the UK, there was also great camaraderie between fellow exhibitors/inventors.

Squeezeopen™ won two gold medals at the show and went on to be the overall winner by picking up the 'Grand Prix Award'.  A nice twist was that it beat the Swiss entry, which had won the top award in the previous Geneva show, to third place.

My strategy in all this had been to give Squeezeopen™ global recognition and to try and win some awards along the way and, on the back of any success, more importantly, sell some more licenses.  Although I had successfully sold three licenses already, a stumbling blocks was the packaging brand-owners attitudes. They seemed generally excited by Squeezeopen™ but were reluctant to gamble on a new container without a proven history, the egg before the chicken so to speak.  To overcome this apparent paradox I licensed a UK marketing company to sell our pack as a personalised desktop marketing aid.  It was a real ‘win win’ situation for me as it made a profit and would give Squeezeopen™ the profile it needs to penetrate mainstream packaging markets.

The only real competition in this promotional market was an ugly, dangerous-looking tin container that had an serrated edge around the lid.   That was until recently though.  Have you guessed what’s coming?  Yep! someone is now selling a tin constructed on the same principle as my Squeezeopen™.

Having delved deeper into this matter it appears that this tin hit the market some six months after the shows and what really sticks in my craw is that they have also had the audacity to accept a number of major awards for this supposedly original work!  Looking at the publicity pictures these awards generated ‘retro man’ (or as I now like to call him ‘tin man’ after the character - from L. Frank Baum’s story of the Wizard of Oz - with no heart) from the Geneva show was the so-called inventor.  Coincidence!  What do you think? 

To cut a long story short, I gave the manufacturers of this new tin the opportunity to do the decent thing and pay me for a license.  They denied all knowledge of Squeezeopen™ and quoted patents and design registrations that, on inspection, had absolutely no relevance.  Pointing this out to them they changed tack saying that their rights were in the tin manufacture and threatened to claim for damages if we went public.  Nice people hey!  For this reason I cannot name names and, because their product is completely different to ours, as they stated, no-one will know whom I am talking about.  Right!   

An interesting incident also proved my point about the limitations of tin, as opposed to plastic.  The sample of the tin they sent to me, for evaluation, did not work.  It had been damaged in the post - even when swaddled in bubble wrap!  Also when I finally received a working sample it was soon bent out of shape by the squeezing action. 

It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  Strangely, I do not feel privileged at all. I just feel contempt for the copyists.  Developing my Squeezeopen™ closure has taken me years of hard work, sacrifices, and not to mention a small fortune. 

The irony is that I am now in a market where my main competitor is using the technology (albeit in tin) I invented against me and it seems as though I cannot do anything about it.  They have deeper pockets than mine and because I selected plastic, as the material to use in the patents, from a legal standpoint, morally is surely a different issue, they have probably not broken the law.  Strange world - I wonder what Dorothy would think about The Tin Man now? 

Perhaps my only recourse is to move on and aggressively win the market share with our much superior product.  

In conclusion, I don’t want to put you off inventing.  As a nation we are damn good at it and, like anything in life, when you put yourself out there, there are going to be a few knocks and sharp practices - but the ups can be fantastic, very rewarding and life changing.  My advice to you is if you have a “bit of an idea”, as your first port of call, join an inventors club.  You can get invaluable advice from people with experience in inventing and it can be very social. 

Us inventors need to stick together, identify the bad guys and get out more.

By Mark Sheahan

  

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