Reinventing our inventors

Archimedes had his idea in the bath. I had my idea for the clockwork radio when I was watching television. Ideas can come at the most peculiar times, and they prompt us to do a multitude of things. On rare occasions, these ideas have a commercial significance. The first problem is deciding what to do […]

Archimedes had his idea in the bath. I had my idea for the clockwork radio when I was watching television. Ideas can come at the most peculiar times, and they prompt us to do a multitude of things. On rare occasions, these ideas have a commercial significance.

The first problem is deciding what to do next. Most of us go to the pub and tell everyone about the idea which is about the most foolish thing you can do. Your ‘intellectual property’ becomes worthless common knowledge.

We can protect our ideas by using the Patent Office. In general terms, nobody pays you for a good idea, but they will pay you for a piece of paper called a patent. But we have to know that the idea has not been used before, and that means searching every patent office in the world, which is daunting, and expensive.

If you go to a large company with your idea before you have a watertight patent to protect it, you could risk having the idea quietly stolen by that company’s research and development department straight after your presentation.

That means that a good patent attorney is essential which costs money. But finding funds to back this, and indeed cash to progress the invention once the idea is patent protected, is extremely difficult in this country.

As a last resort, after a string of rejection letters from British companies, I appeared on TV with my idea and was fortunate to find a product champion in the form of Christopher Staines, who was prepared to invest in my ideas and who has helped create the company that now makes the BayGen Freeplay Radio.

But without this, the finance available from banks to small companies and one-person operations is expensive, and comes with high risks to the individuals concerned.

The situation should be made easier for inventors. According to official figures, the British economy is losing an estimated £156bn a year through British inventions going overseas. My own project for the Freeplay radio, affectionately known as the clockwork radio, is a case in point. It has its base in South Africa.

More than half of all great inventions come from within the UK, but few are developed here. We only have to look at history to see how British inventors have been shoddily treated by government and industry. With a few exceptions, most of us are disenchanted, unrecognised, and unrewarded.

This is not a recent phenomenon. Frank Whittle (1907-96) first created the jet engine in 1931-32, yet it was not developed or used in an aircraft in Britain until 1944. Meanwhile, the Germans had flown a Whittle-type engined aircraft in 1939. Had we listened to Frank and had the Government not been indifferent to his activities, the Second World War would have been over sooner. Just imagine how many Allied lives would have been saved.

In Britain we spend a disproportionate amount on our heritage opera houses, museums and art galleries. Yet we are not prepared to make some sensible effort to reclaim the £156bn lost from British inventions being exploited overseas.

I have been trying without success to bring to the attention of this Government and to the establishment the importance of this band of individuals, who are at this very moment slaving in their garden sheds.

The only way we are going to make a change here in Britain is by the formation of a Royal Academy of Inventors where you can safely take these wild ideas to establish their merit. The academy could be financed quite simply. The inventor would receive all the necessary help to bring the product or process to the market place. This would be done by ensuring that the academy shares in the profits of the inventor, so that if a royalty deal was agreed with a company approached by the academy on the inventor’s behalf, the academy would share in that royalty.

Because the academy would have this financial involvement and because it would now have some influence, any corporation endeavouring to swindle the inventor and his entitlement would have to face up to the academy.

The academy in turn could have the ability to shape the laws concerning intellectual property, and it could also become a tax break for investors who back British inventors.

Perhaps this alone would stop the brain drain which is caused when British inventors go overseas to look for commercial opportunities to exploit their ideas.

Professor Trevor Baylis is the inventor of the BayGen Freeplay Radio, and the recently launched clockwork torch