Let The Inventor Beware

Let The Inventor Beware

Calvin Flowers relates to parents who struggle to keep their teenagers from running up the telephone bill. While growing up, he and his six siblings gave his mother headaches because they abused their phone privileges.

“When the bill arrived, no one wanted to help pay it,” says Flowers, who recalls how his mother unplugged the phone and locked it in her bedroom as a last resort. “But my siblings bought another phone, and the bill ended up being higher than ever.”

Flowers, now 54, a college math major with a passion for computer science and electronics, has a knack for solving problems. To solve the telephone abuse problem for his mother, he created the “Security Jack,” a telephone — locking device that secures the phone at the jack.

When the invention worked, Flowers knew he had something others would want. Using the Security Jack as his first product, he formed a company, Tel — Lock Inc. Today, Tel — Lock offers several models of the Security Jack, and the company has new products in development, including a device to help fight identity theft, and another to enable Website sharing.

The road to success was not an easy one for Flowers. In 1992, the inventor hired a now — defunct invention promotion firm, to help evaluate, develop, patent, and market his invention. “For $500 they did a patent search for me. I was green when it came to the invention industry, and they presented inflated market statistics,” recalls Flowers. “That’s when they told me I would have to pay them $9,500, which I did in three installments.”

Soon after his final payment, Flowers learned that his patent application had been denied. After doing further research, he discovered that one of the firm’s attorneys wasn’t even licensed to be a patent lawyer. “It turns out my patent application had not been filed correctly,” he says. “These companies make you feel so high, then you give them your money and it really bursts your bubble. The experience kills a person’s entrepreneurial spirit.”

Flowers eventually received his patent only to have his idea stolen. After settling out of court in a patent infringement lawsuit, Flowers is restructuring Tel — Lock Inc. by repairing relations with customers who were scared off by the legal battle. His Security Jack product has sold about 50,000 units to date to Walgreens stores, as well as to corporate and government offices.

As Flowers’ experience shows, product development can be a vulnerable stage in the invention process. In their eagerness to develop and market their creations, many inventors fall victim to so — called invention promotion firms that promise much but then fail to deliver. Scores of inventors have lost thousands of dollars to such firms.

Armed with information that can help them recognize warning signs, however, inventors can approach promoters more cautiously. In a consumer alert, the Federal Trade Commission offers tips for “spotting sweet — sounding promises of fraudulent invention promotion firms.” Learning how to “read” these signs will help inventors take ownership of their products and save them time, money, and