My thanks to Mark Sanders, MAS-Design products Ltd for agreeing to do an inventor interview for Ideas Uploaded. Mark has invented a multitude of products from a one touch tin opener, a chopping board to folding bikes. You can see some images of his inventions within this post and links to more at the end. Also near the bottom of this post Mark gives some great tips on protecting your ideas without spending a fortune on patents and agents.
Tara: Please could you tell me a little bit about where you are based, your background and how and why you started inventing?
Mark: I’m based in Windsor, Berkshire – although originally from Sheffield (via Bedford and London). My grandfather was chief engineer of a group of Sheffield steel factories (Balfour-Darwin), and my earliest memories, and from about age 4 were of seeing smelting and rolling of steel so close up I could really feel the heat [imagine how ‘elf & safety would now view that !] . As a kid I was fascinated by and experimented on anything; from Bicycles and music synthesisers to model aeroplanes. Making and flying radio controlled model ‘planes was a very good basis for design and engineering as they had to be strong and light and accurate – but still often came home in bin bags ! At school I did OK in ‘science’ subjects but still liked arts – but it had to be 1 or the other – I ended up going towards science and engineering. 1st as a student apprentice at Allens, later a Rolls-Royce subsidiary, and then doing at mechanical engineering degree at imperial college. I noticed another apprentice described his dad as a ‘professional inventor’ and was intrigued that such a career was possible. It turned out that his dad was no other than ‘Ron Hickman’ inventor of the ubiquitous black and decker ‘workmate’.. but also designer and engineer of the original ‘60’s Lotus Elan & Europa… a real hero ! After Imperial and Allens I wanted to work on more ‘human scale’ products (than massive: Turbines, Diesels and pumps), so moved to Windsor to work for Mars, to design vending machines. I noticed they used ‘design consultants’ and aged 23, arrogantly thought ‘I can do better than that’ – but needed to prove it. So after 2 years I went back to college to develop my creative engineering and artistic side. Some new picture slides about this HERE.
It was a [then] new masters course called ‘IDE’ run jointly by Imperial College and the Royal College of Art, and based at the RCA . This course was pivotal for me – and is probably the nearest course teaching ‘professional Inventing’. It takes not only promising engineers, scientists and designers, but also, almost anyone who can demonstrate a high level of creativity and commitment.
Looking back, my time on IDE was a ‘shiny Jewel’ of an experience, and changed my life in a very positive way. After working in engineering, the immersion into the arts and design world and people of the RCA was refreshingly exciting. The IDE aim of achieving elegance (in both engineering and design) was the aim and quite tough. The experience was so good I just kept coming back for more – and was a visiting tutor for over 18 years.
This course was the perfect transition into the person I always wanted to be – the exciting life of conceiving, engineering, designing, and inventing new products – this still doesn’t feel like work. The buzz of imagining elegant new ways of doing things, and turning these dreams into products that sell, sometimes in millions, is awesome.
Tara: When you came up with the idea for the Strida folding bike what were the steps you took from the idea in your head to getting the product to Market?
Mark: I conceived and designed the original Strida at a time when several things happened in my life…I’d just given up a well-paid job to study the RCA. I needed a major project for a year’s study to satisfy both colleges: basically the RCA had to be satisfied with the aesthetics and Imperial had to be satisfied with the mechanics. I had a tough 25 mile commute into London. I tried everything: by car the journey was slow and there was lots of congestion; by bus it was slow, congestion was still a problem and there was more than two miles extra to get to the door; by train the journey was ok, except for the last two miles to the door; by motorbike it was dangerous; and finally I tried cycling all the way, which would have been ok except it was totally knackering and nobody would sit near me when I got there! Plus, on an even more personal note I wanted a project to help me to start my own design/engineering/invention business: it had to be reasonably commercial. Finally, I was highly motivated because my brother had just been killed in a stupid accident, so I wanted to make most of my time. Having considered buying a folding bike to take on the train or bus I couldn’t find one that was affordable, fun, simple and light… in short I couldn’t find one that was at all appealing. I believe that unless an innovation is appealing, it will benefit few lives. I felt that for me to design a new, simple and fun folding bike would meet all these needs.
My professor at the time however, Frank Height, didn’t agree and wanted to see evidence of a good concept before letting me go ahead. His reaction was: “bikes were designed 100 years ago… what makes you think you can do anything new and innovative?” This was a good question and another challenge. He was later hugely supportive.
At the time taking full sized bikes on crowded commuter trains and buses just did not work well. Folding bikes were in their infancy and all were heavy and complex: they were usually just ‘fold in half’ jobs. ‘Green’ was not at all mainstream and bikes (this is before mountain bikes) were either for enthusiasts or for those who couldn’t afford a car. I originally hit on the idea for a triangular frame by doing zillions of sketches and some sketch models of all the alternatives. I needed something different and innovative for my professor. The triangle has elegance in both engineering and design terms, so I was happy. The bike is basically 3 tubes and 3 joints. I feel lucky that they also formed such a distinctive visual statement – a triangle with wheels at its corners.
You can also find out more about it HERE
Tara: How do you go about funding the development of your invention ideas, do you raise finance from investors, partner with other companies or finance the projects yourself?
Mark: I never borrow or raise finance from investors because I don’t want to be in debt (or risk family home), nor do I want to feel controlled by investors and their expectations. I tend to finance projects myself, or work with marketing companies from early stages on a part fee, part royalty basis. But ‘finance’ sounds like the sort of thing ‘inventor agencies’ or Banks/investors might do …. but ‘making ideas real’ usually just takes time – I make my own test rigs, models and do my own engineering, so i only need to find the cost of specialised cnc machining (plus of course patent and IP protection .. more of that later. I Like to design and invent a variety of products so I don’t want to build a company or factory around any one product group – that seems too restrictive and a tad boring, even if probably THE way to riches … a la Dyson !
Tara: What sort of importance to you place on protecting you ideas via patents or other means? Do you ensure all your ideas have patentable aspects?
Mark: First of all I believe ‘ideas’ are ‘2 a penny’ and should not be valued too much. It is a myth that the idea has much value – everybody has loads of them and so are potential inventors. The hard part is proving those ideas both functionally (and commercially). Unfortunately most people believe in the myth. I now rarely mention ‘I’m and inventor’ as the usual response is “ Oh, I’ve got an idea I’ll share it with you and we can go 50/50 on the profits, all you have to do is ….” I’d say the value is 0.1% for the idea and 99.9% ‘all you have to do’
I tend to mainly work on things that are potentially patentable .. because re-designing something that already exists is less interesting. Whether I go for a patent, design registration depends usually on who I am working with on the marketing side, or if I have managed to get any grants towards the project. (Tip: design registration is called a patent in the USA, so you can say ‘design registered and patented’). I have a pretty jaundiced view of patents – I 100% agree with the points Graham Barker makes in “Patenting Your Invention: the Ugly Truth” The costs are crazy for all except BIG business’, the only real value of patents is to CFO’s of marketing companies or investors who want to have something more tangible than a ’unique product idea + looks-like, works-like prototype, clear market and sensible production costing’ … proof that it is indeed new and unique. As a form of protection they are pretty useless – copiers and infringers don’t copy at the early stage of a project, they wait until all the hard work of testing, introducing and building the market, proving both reliability and sales … then they copy.
Tara: How do you go about promoting your ideas, do you contact possible companies with the idea of licensing your product inventions or do you like to maintain control and manufacture and sell them yourself?
Mark: I like to get to know key marketing and manufacturing companies in the product field and try and work with them from as earlier stage as possible. Sometimes they point out to me a gap in their market .. which is wonderful as they really know their market, and I have a free reign as to how to fill that gap. Or I suggest in outline an area I am working on and without necessarily giving away the product concept, ie sell them the product’s benefits (selling the ‘sizzle rather than the sausage’ as they say in sales circles). I love designing, engineering and inventing in a whole range of different areas so I don’t want to build a company or factory. I find inventing is the easy part – the harder part is manufacturing in volume and, even harder than that, effective marketing and distribution.
Tara: In your experience what sort of commissions and advances can inventors potentially hope to get if they decide to license their ideas? How far developed do these ideas need to be?
Mark: I have never been given an advance – eg before the idea is made real. But by showing the concept has benefits and potential and matches a marketing companies aspirations, I find it is possible to share the early risks. On several of my projects (eg one-touch products) I have shared the risks and rewards with the manufacturing company, based on a part fee, part royalty basis. This means that as I develop the product, I am paid a % of my normal design/engineering fees, and accept a lower % of royalties. This effectively shares the risks – the marketing company does not have to pay up front huge R&D, design and engineering costs, but accepts there are no guarantees, and likewise I am now ploughing in huge amounts of time and energy just on the potential that, one day, if all goes well there may be enough sales to generate a decent royalty. When I work with companies again, the product concepts do not have to be as advanced as when I work with new companies because they know how I work and there is mutual trust. This has to be built up with new companies so the concept has to be much more advanced – ideally to full ‘looks-like, works-like’ prototype stage.
Tara: From an initial invention idea how long would you normally expect it to take to get a product to market, based on projects you have worked on?
Mark: It depends on the engineering subtitles and complexities: for example a at the fast end of development are simple products like the Curve peeler which took about 4 months (sketches, simple models, ergonomic test-rigs, CAD, rapid-prototyping, production tooling and packaging) this was done in conjunction with JosephJoseph from the start. Whereas the IF-Mode full sized folding bike took 5 years, and for the 1st 3 years was done alone.
Tara: Did you learn anything bringing your first invention to market that changed the way you worked on subsequent ideas?
Mark: Yes – the more complex a product is and the smaller the niche market it is for the harder it is. This applied to the relatively complex and certainly new Strida bike with many separate new parts. By comparison my 2nd major invention was a one-piece moulded part with a massive potential market .. the No-spill Chopping board, Chop2Pot. But I find folding bicycles are more interesting and satisfying than kitchen tools.
Tara: You have a varied portfolio of inventions from a can opener, a folding cutting board, to folding golf trolleys and bikes, what gives you the inspiration for a new product? Do you work to specific company briefs for products or are your ideas self driven?
Mark: I used to give the correct ‘design and marketing student’ answer to this question. But now I can be more honest. New products should all be universally user focused, and their benefits really needed. But now I believe that unless you have some personal passion for a new product, it is rare to do something extraordinary. However, to come full circle – once really immersed in a problem area, solving almost any challenge can be satisfying.
Generally I prefer to work on stuff I like to use, and as I don’t cook, but do cycle – I prefer designing bikes, even tho it is a much less lucrative market.
Its appox 50/50 company or joint briefs vs self driven ideas.
Tara: Have you ever had any invention ideas that you loved but never quite made it to market?
Mark: Yes several – I try to keep hacking away at trying to get a marketing company to share my enthusiasm for them, but sometimes give up and move on (its easy to get too obsessed with one product – but must be avoided). Once I’d given up on resurrecting an early invention .. the No-spill Chopping board, Chop2Pot, which sold well years in an earlier form, but then died in the market, when Richard Joseph of JosephJoseph saw it in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and tracked me down – that was wonderful, especially as in its new form it sells really well.
Tara: Do you ever worry you will run out of ideas?
Mark: No – because it doesn’t feel like work. And I trust the design process to deliver (eg define, brainstorm, develop several stands, evaluate, brainstorm details … etc.)
Tara: What advice would you give any aspiring inventor with an idea?
Mark: Dream ‘what if’ and then make it happen. Never expect anyone else to turn an unrefined ‘idea’ into something more tangible – it just wont happen ..or.. it will cost you a lot. You don’t need degrees in engineering and design (although they do help), but using ‘The Zulu Principle’ [ As prescribed by James Dyson .. if anyone focus’s narrowly enough on a problem, they can quite easily become a world expert on it and its solution ….. as in Zulus are a narrow field of study – research a few books, ‘googles’ and visits to museums etc. and you can be an expert in Zulus ]… I hope this does not offend any Zulu inventors …. it’s just a name for a creative technique.
Tara: Are there any inventions you have recently worked on that you are able to share?
Mark: As you know, for decent IP protection it would be very bad to publically share stuff not yet covered. However as a hint of things to come some keywords would be: ‘Juice’ ‘Robotic Folding’ and ‘Range’
Tara: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Mark: Some tips: on IP protection without wasting £zillions at patent offices and agents ….
This assumes all the normal good inventing practices are already followed: eg Market, costings, margins, searches, well designed ‘looks-like, works-like, packaged-like‘ prototype, [like products are in store], late patent application, NDA’s, etc. etc.
1. The main use of a patent is something tangible to show the CFO / admin types at a company (few would put cash down for ‘just’ an idea, even with prototype etc. Dragons Den grabbers love them (“let the poor sap waste their money on expensive patents and then we’ll snap up 80% of the company for bugger all” 🙂
2. Ideas are rarely ripped off when shown at early stages, and especially not by big companies who have more to loose in potential bad PR, and may even want a reverse type NDA.
4. Use the Design Registration process: it costs much less than patents, AND if extended to USA, (or just done there) has a huge advantage that they are called a design PATENT in USA. So you can say, “Copyrights, Design-rights, Registered Design and Patented” (or applied for) which sounds more impressive to would be licencees, CFO’s etc.
5. Rather than licence the patent, assign it: This has saved me many £££ over the years, as when assigned the costs for ongoing patent application(s) are paid by the bigger marketing / manufacturing company eg, translations, reviews, and even fighting (or scaring off) infringers. Like any property or capital goods, an assignment can be re-assigned back or ownership transferred elseware.
6. Enter Competitions (after application) – these independently, and notably fix the invention, in time and to you.
7. Also get sensible, serious PR and publicity, [limited to trade press so as not to spoil a future launch into national media], again, to independently, and notably fix the invention, in time and credited to you.
8. Finally, chasing infringers, back to their bases is VERY expensive, especially when you are a foreigner in their country .. and especially China, who conveniently feigns ‘developing country status’ .. unfortunately, as there is no international police to capture IP thieves … as pointed out by Graham Barker,:… HERE, every step has to be paid for ! And lawyers are not cheap. However, even fakers have to promote their wares – and this is the best, and lowest cost way to nab them 🙂 ……
i – At trade fares /shows – show the patent / IP ownership to the organisers and have them kick off the infinging exhibitors – ..ideally invite the press to this confrontation, as it makes great PR ! .. and is super at scaring off others – especially as Asians hate to ‘loose face’ in such a public way. Milk as much PR from the results – to scare off others.
ii– Ebay are now much better at removing fakes – even tho’ its almost a full time job reporting them.
iii– Magazines and even blogs are keen to stay ‘above board’ so usually respond well if you point out they are mentioning/ promoting fakes, ideally then, again milk as much positive PR from them – with them is a ‘good light’ for doing the right thing (ie saving people from the REAL safety issues of say dangerous fake bicycles, or the disappointment of non-working kitchen gadgets. This also works (sometimes) with Amazon, who are actually quite bad at not ridding themselves of fakes from their ‘market-store’ 3rd party sellers. Unlike ebay who have been sued by a few large fashion groups for not policing fakes, Amazon seems to keep its head down (and take the money).
Tara: Thanks again for helping me with this, if I can help you in anyway please let me know
Mark: I guess I want to encourage people of all ages to think positively about science, technology, design, engineering as creative, satisfying career choices. To promote ‘great inventing’ as a positive national trait … along the lines of Arkwright, Hook, Newcomen, Watt, Brunel, Whittle, Cockerill, Hickman, Dyson etc… Mad, maybe, in the sense that they were way ahead of their time and so their ideas and vision might have appeared odd at the time, but not in retrospect. Less about the medias obsession with crazy caricature shed inventors.
Products and links
Prestige Jar opener – video:
X-Bike (for Sinclair Research)
Golf carts (for Titleist)
Chair bed (for Olympus)
Spyfish mechanism (for h2eye)
Bonsai Valve (for Invensys)
If you enjoyed this inventor interview you can read more here.
Are you an inventor with an interesting story to share, then please get in touch via the contact form or email tara (at) ideasuploaded (dot) com