1983-1989 : Calderdale Innovation Centre
The origins of abettermousetrap.co.uk date from the formation in 1983 of Calderdale Innovation Centre (CIC) in Todmorden, West Yorkshire.
CIC was an initiative of Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council. Its aim was to assist a declining local manufacturing economy by offering private inventors a resource for turning their ideas into prototypes. These might then be developed as new products by local companies. Moreover, the prototypes would be made by engineering apprentices, thus improving their own skills and employment prospects.
CIC was the second (the first was in Hull) of what became a network of around 20 UK innovation centres with similar regeneration and business formation aims. It was however the only one that focused solely on invention development.
In 1984, CIC moved to larger premises at Dean Clough Industrial Park in Halifax.
CIC proved popular, attracting enquiries from UK and overseas inventors at an average of one a day despite almost no publicity or advertising. But the time needed to take a new product from concept to market-place had been seriously underestimated, and product royalties that had been expected to make CIC financially self-sustaining were slow to materialise. After running it for a period in a revised form as an incubator for business start-ups based on inventions, Calderdale Council finally closed the Centre in 1989.
CIC had been arguably a naive venture based on an incomplete understanding of the innovation process – for example, the importance of IP took a while to be appreciated – but it reflected poor general awareness throughout the UK of the business aspects of invention. And CIC’s popularity, despite minimal self-promotion, drew attention to a wider lack of support for inventors – in marked contrast to increasing national and local government support for other forms of innovation.
1989-1999 : Wordbase Associates
After the demise of CIC, manager Peter Bissell and deputy Graham Barker continued advising inventors and innovative small firms locally, in a private capacity as Wordbase Associates.
They also gained wider recognition in the invention/innovation field as a result of their publications (see below).
1999-2006 : the NESTA years
When NESTA (the National Endowment for Science, Technology & the Arts) was set up by government with National Lottery funding in 1999, it included an Invention & Innovation Programme to provide development funding to qualifying private inventors and very small companies. As Peter Bissell & Associates, Bissell and Barker headed the lead external team assessing funding proposals. During the lifetime of the Invention & Innovation Programme the team (the two principals plus eight subject specialists) assessed around 5000 invention proposals.
In recent years Graham Barker has become highly critical of NESTA. Though set up by statute to help inventions, NESTA eventually stopped funding private inventors on the grounds that they make no significant contribution to the economy. Barker’s basic argument is that first, NESTA is in breach of its statutory obligations; and second, that private inventors can make a significant contribution to the economy but are far less likely to do so if denied support and encouragement.
2004- : abettermousetrap.co.uk
As nearly all the NESTA evaluation, research and reporting work was done online, Graham Barker and Peter Bissell decided to rebrand and repurpose their private invention-related activities. Thus abettermousetrap.co.uk was launched in 2004, offering the same team skills and resources used for NESTA assessments but this time directly to inventor clients.
Peter Bissell retired in 2008, leaving Graham Barker as sole owner of the business and manager of its invention evaluation and development network.
At Calderdale Innovation Centre it became clear that few inventors knew how to evaluate and commercialise their ideas. Nor was there a suitable published guide to invention that could be used to help educate them – so Graham Barker wrote what may have been the first ever beginner’s guide to invention, in collaboration with Peter Bissell.
Originally intended as a Calderdale Innovation Centre publication, its completion in 1989 coincided with the closure of the Centre. It therefore had to be self-published, with the help of a small but welcome grant from the Department of Trade & Industry. It was called A Better Mousetrap and was only 48 pages long in A4 format.
It struck a chord, and two later editions were sponsored by BP and the Open University, and officially approved by the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys.
A complete rewrite in 1998 (revised in 2004) was published as The Business of Invention – a name change the authors came to regret, as ‘A Better Mousetrap’ had by then become established as a brand.
After abettermousetrap.co.uk launched in 2004, Graham Barker again wrote a completely new book and reverted to the original title. A Better Mousetrap: the Business of Invention appeared in 2007, still self-published and self-marketed (by abettermousetrap.co.uk) and now 200 pages long.
Graham Barker has also written the European Patent Office online Inventors’s Handbook, which has been translated into several European languages, and Patenting Your Invention: the Ugly Truth, a free download that warns unwary inventors about the very mixed blessings of patenting.
Reflections on three decades of helping inventors
In 1983 there was no significant public or private sector support or provision for UK inventors (other than patent attornies) and very little awareness among inventors themselves of the invention process. In the public imagination the stereotypical inventor was an eccentric doomed to failure – despite the fact that the only living inventor most people could name was Ron Hickman, highly successful inventor of the Black & Decker Workmate.
Almost 30 years later, the situation for UK inventors is better in some respects but there is still a great deal of room for improvement.
•…Perhaps in part because of the influence of A Better Mousetrap and The Business of Invention, there is a greater awareness of the problems inventors face.
•…There are more businesses providing services for inventors, though these are, to put it diplomatically, of varying quality and integrity. Thanks to the zeal of trading standards departments, it is now easier to identify and deal with the most blatant examples of rip-off invention service provision.
•…The image of the aging white male inventor is changing as younger, more entrepreneurial inventors of both sexes emerge, often on prime-time TV programmes such as the BBC’s Dragon’s Den. (Though DD is arguably a poor example of how to treat anyone with a new business idea.)
•…Despite these positives, business support for private inventors is still largely absent. Thus far it seems impossible to interest governments in including inventive individuals in their programmes of support for SMEs; while conventional investors and business angels rarely back inventions until all the early-stage risks have been eliminated – at the inventor’s expense.
•…There is therefore some justification for a common complaint of inventors: that they are punished for having a good idea, rather than encouraged to develop it.
•…The best and worst thing to happen to UK invention in the last 20 years was NESTA’s Invention & Innovation Programme (1999-2006). The best because it recognised the need for early-stage funding for invention projects and addressed it in a fair and intelligent way; the worst because NESTA soon came to regard its own interests as more important than those of inventors. It eventually concluded that private inventors are not economically significant and so not worth helping – thus blighting the chances of success for any subsequent invention support proposal.
(Since abandoning inventors, NESTA has invested many millions of pounds in a variety of projects, none of which appears to be providing a significant return. Exactly what has been achieved with public funds disbursed by NESTA over several years remains a mystery.)
•…There seems no doubt that the inventors most likely to succeed are those who assume an entrepreneurial role and engage with the business world on its own terms. They however are also the ones who must take the greatest personal risks, which again highlights the need for an appropriate basic support system for invention.
•…A major problem for inventors remains the cost, complexity and ineffectiveness of patenting. In practice a patent offers very little protection to a patentee who cannot afford extremely expensive legal action – which means almost all inventors and perhaps a majority of SMEs. Despite various reviews of IP and proposals for change, there seems to be no interest at government level in the sort of radical reform that would most benefit grass-roots innovation.