The patents on two toys mentioned in an article in Monday's Washington Business, "ROM, the Space Knight" and "Starbird," are held by Scott Bankman and Bing McCoy, a Bethesda inventor, in addition to Richard C. Levy.
If Bethesda inventor Richard C. Levy had played the role of the man giving Dustin Hoffman a one-word piece of advice in the movie "The Graduate," it would have been "marketing."
Marketing, the 38-year-old Levy says, "is 90 percent of anything" -- including his sale of about 30 inventions, enabling him to make a comfortable living while working out of the home he shares with his wife, Sheryl, and 5-year-old daughter Bettie.
"I think the blessing I have is that I am an 'imagineer,' " Levy said. "I am a smattering of the inventor, the marketeer, the developer, the designer. I understand enough about how to take the idea from a seed through the negotiating contracts . . . and that is the big downfall that a lot of people have. A guy invents something and doesn't know what to do with it."
Levy, some would say, is a member of an endangered species as symbolic of the American spirit as the buffalo: the independent inventor. Patent and invention experts tick off the many arrows that they say have thinned their ranks, among them government and corporate red tape, burdensome patent fees, steep costs for research and prototypes, and encroachments made by foreigners, who held more than 40 percent of all patents issued in 1984. Most frustrating -- because it would seem the most easily remedied -- is lack of marketing savvy, the very quality that has made the difference in Levy's case.
Of the 72,651 patents issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 1984, only about 23 percent went to independent inventors, the agency estimates. A mere fraction of those were sold and enriched their holders, patent experts say.
"The highest estimate I've seen is about 5 percent of patented inventions get on the market a year, but I've seen estimates down in the 1 to 3 percent range," said John Farady, executive director of Affiliated Inventors Foundation Inc. in Colorado Springs, Colo., which assists about 10,000 inventors a year, most of them independents.
"Of course, the whole business of marketing is a terribly difficult thing. There aren't many things that are harder in our economic system," he noted. "Human nature is to reject anything that's new. Beyond that, corporate America has gotten to the point where dealing with it is almost like dealing with the government. Almost no individual can make a decision."
Although Farady believes inventors "will always be there," he warns that their problems "are dangerous to us as a society. We need these people. This is the country that technology built -- and it starts with the inventor."
Levy won't say how much money he makes from his inventions -- except that it has ranged from only a small fee when he licensed an invention to a company to "a lot," particularly for two products, the "Starbird" toy and the "Flourider." His advances -- paid by companies in exchange for initial rights to his inventions -- have ranged from $15,000 to $70,000; his standard royalty, which runs for the life of the item, is between 5 and 10 percent of the net wholesale price.
"When you can get someone to bank on you to sit down and dream up an idea, and get that person to pay you an advance and a royalty . . . in the total society, there are very few people who do this. I've done it over 30 times in a lucrative business. But for every hit, there are five that haven't sold yet."
Levy's products, all of which he has patented or trademarked, include toys, games, gift items and "premiums," or custom-made items sold or given away to consumers to promote loyalty to a brand. Among them are:
A game called "Body Tag," his most recent creation, in which the object is to put stickers on parts of other players' bodies that begin with a certain letter, such as "A" for "arm." He calls the game, to be issued by Baron/Scott Enterprises Inc., "a 1980s version of Pin the Tail on the Donkey or Twister."
* A board game and accompanying book called "Desperately Seeking," released last month by Baron/Scott, based on the phenomenon of personal ads.
*Col. Crumb's Animal Crackers," a board game for children put out by Warren Co. Inc.
*A phonograph/microphone combination that allows children to sing along with records, stamped with the "WKRP in Cincinnati" television show logo, and accompanied by radio announcer "cards" the children can read into the microphone. (It no longer is sold, but Levy is negotiating for it to reappear with a different theme.)
* The Crest Flourider, a bicycle for children with a center bar in the shape of a Crest toothpaste tube, one of three products that Levy not only created but manufactured as well, in conjunction with a partner in the plastics business. He sold Procter & Gamble on the multimillion-dollar promotion partly by pointing out that the bike would be a "rolling billboard," too big to be put in closets.
*The "Starbird," with which he made his first big break into product development eight years ago. Versions were produced in Japan, Germany, Italy, Spain, Britain, France and the Netherlands. The electronic plane has a "gravity switch" that causes it to make appropriate noises depending on whether it is diving or climbing. Levy sold it to Milton Bradley Co., a games company, by reasoning that no one else would be in line to sell a games company a toy.
* "ROM, the Space Knight," produced by Parker Brothers, which Levy describes as the first electronic action figure. Levy used the rivalry between Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers to put Parker in the same toy business in which he had put Milton Bradley. "ROM" also was licensed for a Marvel comic-book series that ran for six years.
New products Levy has in the works include a crib toy and a character for an anti-litter campaign that he hopes to market to municipalities.
"My thrill in this game is not of making the game but of making the game happen," Levy noted. "Coming up with the idea is only part of it. I mean, I don't play 'Desperately Seeking.' My game is seeing what I can do with it in the marketplace. That's the fun for me."
But marketing is not a game most inventors know how to play.
To market one's own inventions "is very, very unusual," said Norman Parrish, president of the California-based National Congress of Inventor Organizations. He estimated that "less than one one-hundredth of a percent" of inventors do so.
Parrish, who formerly taught and researched at the University of California's Lawrence-Berkeley Lab and was chief engineer for "monkey in space" project for NASA, said, "95 percent is the marketing and 5 percent is the invention. Ideas are a dime a dozen. . . . Most people think, 'If I invented it, it can't be very important.' The inventor solves a problem, and then the son-of-a-gun sets it aside and ignores it." Inventors Tend Not to Be Promoters
"In general, inventors, who often are people who have gone to engineering schools and studied science or mathematics, tend not to be good promoters," observed Herbert Wamsley, president of Intellectual Property Owners Inc., which represents about 200 members nationwide. "They are often not as glib as lawyers and business advertising majors and people in other kinds of specialties."
A writer as well as a "marketeer," Levy himself noted this problem -- and wrote an upbeat, anecdotal book about it for his fellow inventors. The book, called "Secrets of Selling Inventions," was published in 1984 by Richard and Sheryl Levy.
Levy, who occasionally serves as an agent for other inventors, also has been invited to speak on "The Dos and Don'ts of Inventing" at the Sixth Annual National Inventors Conference at the Crystal Gateway Marriott Hotel in Arlington this Friday. The event is sponsored by the Patent and Trademark Office, the National Council of Patent Law Associations and the Bureau of National Affairs Inc.
Among Levy's "secrets:" Sell yourself before you attempt to sell your idea, because "people invest in people"; do your homework, not only for the product but on potential markets for it; do a professional job of presentation, including prototypes, drawings, etc.; and beware middlemen who prey on inventors by offering to market their products for a price "and then do zip for them." Levy also finds partners in disciplines such as electronics and plastics to help him execute his ideas.
"I research everything like crazy. I live in the library," said Levy, whose books include "Wife Beating: The Silent Crisis," co-authored with Roger Langley, and "Plane Talk: The Consumer's Air Travel Guide," co-authored with Sheryl.
For example, the first prototype of "Desperately Seeking" used cards. But in his research of potential clients, he discovered a firm that had sold 1.5 million copies of a game called "Dirty Words" that used cubes.
"I said, these people understand cubes, and I better go to that. And you know like with the matador, there's a time to get the bull? It took a matter of minutes for the president of the company to say 'wow,' because I had the support material, I had the demographics."
Then Levy had another idea. With the stacks of magazines and reference material he had already gathered, why not do a book? He convinced the same toy company to publish a paperback "Desperately Seeking" filled with excerpts from real personal ads. Then Levy had another idea: Why not use 12 illustrations -- one for each month -- in the book, then use them in a calendar? "I'm showing you how the mind of the developer works, okay?" he said. "We cross-collateralize. We spend the money on putting art in the book, but the same art can be yanked and put in a calendar."
Levy, who grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania and moved here 10 years ago, uses his home -- and the Washington area -- as a kind of lab for his creations. "The reason I'm in Washington is because information is power, and there is no city in the world that has more information than Washington," he said.
Levy, a teetotaler, says he only sleeps four hours a night, works seven days a week, doesn't play sports and rarely goes to the movies. "When it's 9 a.m., I've already been working for hours. I go continuously. I moonlight on myself."
He expresses gratitude that Sheryl, a trained speech therapist, is a ringmaster in their joint enterprise, "managing me and checking my energy levels," as well as giving him feedback on ideas. "I am very fortunate. I have a great wife who helps me tremendously; my daughter, the environment is right." Working Out of His Home
While business obliges him to travel extensively, Levy also invites clients to his home. "Everybody says to me, 'Washington? I haven't been there in years!' It's a wonderful place. People love to come here."
He conducts business meetings in his ground-floor office, complete with walls jammed with photos, bookshelves overflowing with reference material, his personal computer and a couple of telephones. He then can shift to an adjacent living room with couches and a fire roaring in the winter, or a patio looking out onto the backyard in the summer. Then clients are ushered downstairs for the piece de resistance: a sunken living room dominated by several video machines and a movie screen that Levy can use to show videos on products.
"This room is designed to be atypical of the environment that they would find themselves in in their office: I want it to be relaxed," he emphasized. He then brings them into the adjacent showroom where his creations -- including prototypes of ideas he is hoping to sell -- are displayed. Levy's wooing of clients also has included presenting them with gifts such as "Starbird" cufflinks for the Milton Bradley executives who worked on that toy and "Flourider Launch Team" T shirts for P&G executives.
Levy contends that certain inventors are accepted by corporate clients "because, one, we're pros, we don't waste their time even if they don't accept the product, and two, they don't have to worry that we've stolen something, infringed a patent or ripped someone off. When you're working in the arena of ideas, you have to be comfortable working with someone." An executive who worked with Levy -- and screened myriad calls from outside inventors -- agreed.
"The reason someone like Richard Levy can do such things is a combination of persistence and professionalism," said Barry Akrongold, a former Procter & Gamble executive who worked with Levy on the Flourider. "I always say an idea needs a champion. A guy like Levy not only gives you the idea but romances the idea," said Akrongold, now president of his own company, Lenox Laboratories Inc., in New York.
For example, Akrongold said, when Levy called him, "I said, that's terrific but can you do it? Within a week's time, the guy had a prototype, fully colored with labels. There was very little we had to do. One thing that intrigued me about him: Here's this independent guy with such great ideas, who kept coming at you and didn't stop."
Levy credits much of his marketing savvy to his early career at Paramount Pictures, which began the summer after his junior year at Emerson College in Boston. After graduation he was put in charge of the company's Central American advertising and publicity operation. When Paramount official Joseph E. Levine left to help found Avco Embassy Pictures, he hired Levy as his first director of foreign advertising publicity, giving him responsibility for promoting such movies as "The Lion in Winter," "The Producers" -- and "The Graduate."
"When you talk about where did you learn to be a shtickmeister, my whole training came out of the feature film business," Levy said. "I was in marketing and promotion, and you very quickly become a P. T. Barnum or you die."