The first step to inventing profit

Inventors slave away in isolation waiting for the flash of inspiration which will allow them to perfect their idea and win fame and fortune. Or do they?

Actually no, says Alan Somerfield who is refocusing his design consultancy practice to specialise in ‘invention to order’.

‘For 10 years I’ve worked as an industrial design consultant,’ he says, ‘and I realised that the most successful projects have involved an inventive step, leading to a patentable idea which generated revenue through licensing.’

He sees himself as an inventor, albeit a more successful one than most, rather than a designer. Accordingly his consultancy is being renamed Inventive Step and he will be concentrating on that sort of project in future, hoping to attract clients who want more than just a restyling job for their product.

It is a logical move for Somerfield, who showed an urge to invent from an early age but almost pursued a more conventional career with Ford.

Aged 11, he designed a football shoot in which scoring a bull’s eye dumped the unlucky winner in a paddling pool. He studied mechanical engineering at Southampton University, where the course included a fourth year in industry, which he spent with Ford.

He was offered a permanent job and was about to accept when he realised, he says, that his working life would be limited to engineering other people’s designs with a corporate Chinese wall separating him from the creative process. ‘That was the pivotal moment.’

Instead he decided to strike out on his own as a solo design consultant. He enrolled on a master’s course in industrial design at the Royal College of Art, a course that brought together the best of the design and engineering disciplines.

His first commercial success was a vandal-proof stainless steel integral-cistern urinal which formed part of his RCA degree show and remains in production.

What then, is the difference between design and invention? ‘Inventors are a subset of designers: all inventors are designers, but not all designers are inventors,’ he explains. The distinction is that an invention is capable of being patented, as distinct from a registered design, or something copyrightable.

For example, he says, imagine you were redesigning an electric kettle in 1953, and instead of restyling it to look streamlined, you asked, ‘how about making it switch off automatically?’, as Russell Hobbs did. ‘That way you end up with something you can patent.’

But surely invention is a spontaneous thing that can’t be done to order? ‘There’s no magic in it,’ he says. ‘The formulation of ideas is relatively easy. The difficult bit is to find what industry wants.’

That, he says, is where most inventors go wrong. Suppose you have an idea such as a new system for central locking on cars. You go to Ford with it. For them to use it you’ve got to persuade them to change their product planning strategy: not very likely.

But if you can get the client to come to you with an identified need, ‘I will look to see if it is possible to make the inventive step to meet the need.’

He adds: ‘A lot of clients fall into the trap of thinking of solutions. For example, they say we want a door with a lock. I say, no, you want an entrance which is only open to authorised people. You need to open their mind up.’ Then, he says, it is a case of understanding and applying the basic principles of engineering.

An engineering education was crucial to his chosen career, he says. But though the Southampton course was quite broad and design-led, as was his year at Ford, these ‘excluded everything to do with need, marketing, style, and aesthetics’, missing ingredients which were supplied by the RCA course.

The idea of offering ‘invention as a serious business resource’ developed gradually but gathered momentum during the past five years through successes such as the Autolok 2000 steering-wheel security device.

For clients it offers an attractive commercial prospect, he says. The initial fee is 30% 50% of a straight design consultancy fee; Somerfield retains the intellectual property rights, licenses the client to produce the idea and shares the revenue.

Somerfield’s record of six out 10 patents successfully exploited compares favourably with the average of fewer than one in 10 and adds weight to his claims for this approach. The annual turnover from his licensed products is now close to £3m. ‘Licensed production has shown me what I’m best at. Now I’m applying it properly.’