…and we’re back!

It’s been a while, but now IOTD is back. The truth is, I’ve been just about bursting with ideas and I simply don’t have enough time to turn them all into products myself.

In the interim, I’ve rediscovered how little I like cold calling, created many working prototypes, played with online marketing and completed a handful of product development projects. There have been a few ridiculous forays into the world of product telesales, lots of articles about inventing and several pro bono startup adventures.

All of this experience will eventually feed itself into this next phase of IOTD. There may even be a video or two. I really hope you enjoy this material and if you decide that you need any inputs to your own product ideation, please get in touch via my commercial site www.hawkshawinnovation.com



Indeterminate hiatus

About seven years ago, I began posting a new idea here almost every day.

I expect to continue to have and record new ideas, but sadly these must remain unpublished -at least for the forseeable future.

This results from my need to avoid commercial conflicts with a forthcoming business venture I’m involved in.

I’d like to express my sincere thanks to everyone who has commented on this work (even those who had better ideas than me!)

If you’d like to remain in touch, do please do so via sales@hawkshawinnovation.com.

I leave you, for now, with the important words of Alan Kay:

The best way to predict the future is to invent it.


Reader invention: Advertoasting

Here are a couple of genius ideas from readers Andy, Alan, Rob and Alex (with permission, of course)…

An internet enabled toaster that toasts customised advertisements on
your bread using a laser.

The toaster will be provided for free and paid for via the advertisers

Prior art: Scott van Haastrecht’s Super Mega Toaster

A thought from this morning. If the air in a Dyson Airblade hand drier
was heated up could a slice of toast be toasted more evenly?

I love these and think they are original (I have seen somewhere a memo toaster, via which family members can get their calendar entries and reminders to appear on toast).

It might be cool to print a QR code thing on one’s toast, so that you could insert it into a ‘spread’ machine which would read the code and squirt on jam or peanut butter…


I’ve begun selling a new online service, InventorMentoring.

For a modest fee, I’m running one-to-one support sessions for Designers, Inventors, Students, Makers…anyone with a serious interest in making money from their ideas.

It’s all completely confidential and there is no obligation on anyone (other than honesty).

So, get in touch today, or pass the link above to someone who would benefit from my (several decades’) experience.


IOTD ebook

Dear Readers,
There is still time to bag your limited-edition copy of the new IOTD ebook which talks about how you might boost your own ideas output and plan to make some money from the process. It’s only £2.95 -download it here.

(Ideal Xmas gift? Em probably not…but it might actually be useful to you, or a friend, in 2013. If you must have hardcopy, I can arrange to get these made up, but the price is silly. If anyone knows a low-cost source of competent, on-demand printing, do please let me know. Thanks, Patrick pra (at) break-step.com).

IOTD is 6 years old

It’s six years ago since I started writing this blog -that’s one invention pretty much every day since then.

To celebrate, I’m selling an ebook which talks a bit about how you might boost your own ideas output and plan to make some money from the process. It’s only £2.95 -download it here.

(The hand-tooled, vellum-bound, illuminated collector’s edition will be a bit more expensive, so I’d go for the 50-page, 2Mb .pdf right now!).

Illustration competition

If you, or someone you know, is a keen illustrator, then this may be of interest.

Simply choose one of the inventions below and create a presentation-quality drawing of it (as a high-res tiff). I’m looking for a combination of functional explanation and a cool, industrial-design look.

The best one received at pra@patrickandrews.com, by October 10th, will receive an Amazon voucher for £50 and a discussion about a future business opportunity (All entrants retain their copyright but allow me free use of the images, with attribution of course, on websites etc.)

Fame and fortune…(well some fame and the distant prospect of some more cash, maybe).


I’ll also publicise the best 5 drawings here, so don’t forget to include a link to your portfolio.

Defeating Counterfeiting*

What’s the problem?

Counterfeit goods cost businesses -a lot. An FBI assessment from 2002 said that US businesses lose between $200bn and $250bn to counterfeiting annually.1 According to the World Customs Organisation, counterfeit goods account for between five and seven percent of world trade. As I write this, I have just received spam entitled “Prada, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Givenchy.” Even these big brands have difficulty dealing with increasingly professional counterfeiters, who are directly in touch with everyone’s customers via the Internet.

Counterfeiting affects anything of value: medicines, DVDs, fine art, banknotes -even engine components. You can’t watch a legitimately rented movie these days without a sermon on how copyists are spreading viruses, killing entertainment and supporting terrorism.

Yet some authors and software engineers claim that giving away their product makes it significantly easier for them to make money from special editions and related services. Rip-offs can also function as free advertising for genuine products eg those Prada handbags.2

We also have to recognise that whatever the World Trade Organisation may think, not all cultures fully accept the idea of intellectual property protection.3 Shanzhai is a Chinese word that translates literally into “mountain fortress” -a term for counterfeiting that is good enough to take genuine pride in.4 This certainly applies to corners of the international art market in which hyperfakes5 are engineered to be indistinguishable from originals.

What are the solutions?

There are three basic approaches, that I’ve come across, to limiting counterfeit: legal restrictions, technical countermeasures and commercial tactics. Smart businesses are having to adopt a mix of all three to protect their products and brand investment. It’s getting particularly challenging now that a lot of value resides in software, which is inherently copyable. Soon, the designs for hardware will be just as swappable online and executable by your domestic 3D printer, so a micron-perfect Rolex may become just as accessible as a knock-off copy of Windows is now.

1. Legal restrictions-patents and copyright and trademarks

These legal rights can be very powerful if you have the cash to obtain eg patents and pursue infringers and copyists around the globe. I tend to agree with Arthur C Clarke though: “Getting a patent is just a way to get sued”. The Internet is shortening product lifecycles so that the standard approach to obtaining patents is now too slow anyway. Even national governments have withdrawn granted patents when they failed to provide the expected benefits (eg certain pharmaceuticals in Thailand).

I should really hold up my hands at this point (again) and say that I think we should all stop acting as if ideas were property -in the same sense as cars, or land or jewellery. Aside from global corporations, SMEs are often the source of really game-changing inventions6 but patents, for example are “virtually useless,” as a defence against counterfeiting, unless a company has access to the significant funds needed to police and defend them.7

2. Technical countermeasures
To limit counterfeit goods, the genuine article needs ideally to be easily identifiable as such, preferably to a buyer the identifying features need to be hard to replicate by a copyist

Software, electronic content, etc can be hidden within various hardware devices (digital rights management technology) and code obfuscation makes reverse engineering less than cost effective (even if automated cracking tools are used). Conditional access technology (smart cards, encryption, etc) limits the ease with which a hacker can gain access, but in practice, very few companies can invest enough per product to stop counterfeiting absolutely.

Counterfeit documents are a special category in themselves. Here are a number of recent exotic attempts to limit illegitimate copying: glowing bacteria in steganographic watermarks,8 paper fibre fingerprinting9 and patterns formed within the text on naturally fluorescent paper.10

Hardware products are harder to hide from reverse engineers. Here, genuine products may carry overt features such as holograms11, codes or covert features such as embedded images and DNA tags.12 Intelligent chips embedded in certain components can signal their authenticity to a system they are correctly connected to.13 These also enable items to be traced back through the product supply chain -just as bar codes or RFID tags do (A duty-free retailer has recently launched an authentication kiosk in its Hong Kong Airport store. The kiosk allows customers to scan a product’s label and follow its supply chain history to verify authenticity.14 )

Some complex electronic products even make use of ‘wires and gravel’ techniques, whereby they contain surplus circuit components in order to confuse a reverse engineering team.

An academic I knew once developed a security technology which was based on the fact that CDs were then factory-printed on only six machines in the world. Discs contained invisible statistical imperfections so that, using lots of gear and maths ability, you could identify the machine of origin and thus spot fakes.

Tamperproof (or at least resistant) packaging is a popular solution for pharmaceutical and food applications.

3. Commercial tactics
I spend a lot of time thinking up possible routes to competitive advantage which don’t require startups to have a small fortune on hand. Chief among these is to make sales and reinvest any income in future product and brand development. (I recently bought some running shoes. It turned out they were made by some company in China, but copies. The box was a work of art, but the shoes were a poor reflection of the originals. The solution was to turn the branding approach against the copyist. Ironically, he is terrified that his Ebay seller reputation will be harmed by negative reviews and so provided a full refund.)

Designing products using hard-to-get, tailored components may increase costs but can limit counterfeiting. Similarly, working with suppliers of specialised capital equipment to create a barrier to entry has some merit.15

Some companies are now using their brand to supply services, rather than having to worry so much about product counterfeiting. Personally, I favour investing in trust-based supply chain and customer partnerships, as well as in employees, to maintain as secret any special know-how.

Having a clear strategy to enable policing and to deal with accusations of infringement is also essential (no-win no-fee suits allow speculative litigation against even genuine manufacturers16)

An additional suggestion

In terms of clever new approaches to anticounterfeiting, I’ve just read about fake branded clothes being handed in to churches, stamped with a church logo and then sent to Africa as charitable donations. I’m not sure that’s a solution for manufacturers, but at least it results in some good.17

Notes and references

1. http://www.thepublicdomain.org/2010/12/01/fantasy-reality-in-intellectual-property-policy/
2. http://www.boingboing.net/2011/06/06/counterfeiting-can-b.html
3. http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2011/dec/04/dyson-intellectual-property-rights-china
4. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/22/magazine/22fake-t.html?_r=1&th=&emc=th&pagewanted=all
5. http://www.boingboing.net/2007/12/19/village-of-reproduce.html
6. https://iotd.patrickandrews.com/2011/06/04/inventive-incentives-and-the-myth-of-ip/
7. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/businessclub/8200861/Tech-body-patents-are-useless.html
8. http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110926/full/news.2011.557.html
9. http://www.boingboing.net/2009/03/13/fingerprinting-blank.html
10. http://www.gizmag.com/go/7361/
11. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/07/technology/07piracy.html?pagewanted=1&_r=3&nl=todaysheadlines&emc=tha25&adxnnlx=1289150271-I2qEbPRuaqgoFd7G8G18Cg
12. http://www.treehugger.com/clean-technology/butterfly-biomimicry-can-curb-counterfeiting-of-banknotes.html
13. http://www.aviationtoday.com/am/issue/techfocus/28617.html
14. http://www.springwise.com/life_hacks/barcodeplus/
15. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/businessclub/8530911/Look-beyond-patents-trademarks-and-copyright-manufacturers-told.html
16. http://www.technologyreview.com/read_article.aspx? id=16280&ch=infotech
17. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-16058275
* A version of this article originally appreared in the IET’s E&T magazine

Open innovation?

What’s so open about Open Innovation? Big companies realised some time ago that maintaining a sizeable internal ‘Arrandee’ department was painfully expensive and usually not very productive when up against commercial deadlines.

Often, that issue was representative of a failure to understand that R and D are fundamentally different activities (Research is stumbling across new knowledge by repeatedly testing your ideas about how the world works -by watching how the world works. Development is making new products to a defined specification and within a fixed budget and timescale). Get this wrong and all your resources get expended on smart people playing limitless mind games. Even large corporations find it too costly to maintain patent portfolios arising from ideas which might become products ‘one day’.

Instead, they spotted that many of their best new product ideas were being suggested by outsiders, off the payroll. Acme Ltd’s usual policy is to say “send us nothing because we don’t want to be accused later, by some lone inventor, of having copied his idea…ie pretty much the same one we may have already been working on in-house”.

Avid customers however are persistent and, in the case of eg Lego’s robotics kits, they were actually improving the system by hacking its operating system. After 18 months or so of prosecuting their best customers for their temerity, the company realised that those people were a source of expertise and sheer creativity that you usually can’t get by waving a paycheck around.

Listening to customer ideas is the foundation of Open Innovation. Sounds a bit like Open Source, but it’s vastly different. It turns out of course that some companies are more open than others. Many choose to use online aggregators, such as Innocentive.com, to publicise problems they’d like to see dealt with. There aren’t that many people capable of suggesting new sulphurisation reactions for polycyclic aromatic morpho-heterachromes, or whatever…offering prizes online is a way to attract them.

Here’s the deal. You have to sign up to multiple pages of legal bumf before even getting access to the guts of the problem. It’s almost always a very narrowly defined one which is limited by the imagination of an already embarrassed head of Arrandee (see above). Then, you get a chance to write some detailed solution and send it to them. If they choose it as a winner you might get $20k. If they don’t, then you have shared your idea with some folk who have decided not to pay for the privilege. This may well hamper any of your subsequent attempts to obtain legal ‘protection’ for your solution.

P&G have managed to reduce their new product failures from 80% to 50% by this kind of process, so it clearly works -for them. As for the external Inventors, they may get some satisfaction and even recognition but it’s mostly free consulting in return for a small lottery ticket.

If you have a really good cure for a significant commercial headache, why not try talking direct to potential corporate licensees? (after having decided whether to invest in your own patent application). Contact me for some guidance about how to make this kind of approach. pra@break-step.com