Story Highlights• Greater complexity, competition from abroad puts pressure on U.S. inventors
• Internet, peer networks, trade groups, agents help innovators make an impact
• Experts cite importance of creativity, flexibility in K-12 schools, universities
By Greg Botelho
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(CNN) -- Without fail, the lightbulbs go off and phones light up every January, when inventors seem to emerge en masse to pitch freshly conceived gadgets, tools, and other would-be "must have" products.
Pamela Riddle Bird has found this to be true in her 10 years as head of the publicly funded Florida Product Innovation Center and in the last 15 years dealing with top-notch and aspiring inventors in her role as CEO of Innovative Product Technologies. Year-in and year-out, the freshness, energy and creativity of the season seems to embolden these tinkerers and transformers to make a New Year's resolution to embrace the daunting challenge of turning their dreams into realities.
Regardless of when they come out of the woodwork, these hands-on visionaries are active year-round, toiling in universities and garages, in laboratories and kitchens, to concoct innovations that may simplify a daily task or revolutionize society. One-hit wonders aside, Bird and other insiders said that intense curiosity, drive and the capacity to re-envision, remodel and create are intrinsic to many inventors' personalities. (Watch wacky gadgets )
"A true inventor never stops thinking about ways to solve problems," said Andrea Brady, the president of the nonprofit Inventor's Council of Cincinnati, Ohio, and owner of product development and market consulting firms. "It is really a different mind-set."
Today's vast possibilities and problems, including the economic landscape, are far different than those faced by U.S. inventors several decades ago or even just several years ago. (Tell us how innovations are changing your life)
While still imperiled by scam artists and a lack of financial security, modern-day inventors have numerous forums in which to interact with peers, marketing agents, venture capitalists and retailers. Innovators increasingly do research online, with the Internet becoming all the more valuable as the number and complexity of patented products increases.
Inventors appreciate any advantage, given that competition is fiercer than ever -- not only among domestic dreamers and doers, but also from abroad. Nearly 47 percent of U.S. patent applications filed in 2005 originated outside the United States, up from 23 percent in 1963. The number of domestic patent applications increased 212 percent in the same period.
Merton C. Flemings, director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, which promotes U.S. invention, said the fact the world is "catching up" shouldn't frighten or surprise Americans. But he stressed they should be aware of innovation's critical economic and societal role, and thus the need to support, educate and encourage creativity and ingenuity.
"More than 50 percent of the GDP of any developed country results directly from innovation," Flemings said. "If we're to remain economically viable, and, I might say, militarily viable, then invention and innovation must [be a priority]."
Will the 'next Bill Gates' be American?
A poll from Zogby and 463 Communications, released in late December, indicated nearly half of Americans -- 49 percent -- believe the "next Bill Gates" will come from China or Japan. By contrast, 21 percent of those surveyed felt such a pioneer will be American, with 13 percent expecting that he or she will be Indian.
Many leading the innovative charge, however, do not concur with the view that America will lose this battle of ideas -- at least not yet.
"Inventors are still alive and well in the United States," said Dave Cormier, co-founder of Pelham West Associates, which helps companies find new products created by "everyday inventors." "The future to me looks bright."
Innovation is particularly strong in high-tech, highly educated areas, the Small Business Administration has noted. But the Internet has helped level the playing field by providing more opportunities to collaborate, protect against scam artists and more thoroughly research -- thus better vet and develop -- products, said Cormier, a director of the United Inventors Association along with Riddle Bird and Brady.
Invention experts credit American schools for stimulating creativity and inviting students to be hands-on and imaginative. Flemings said that Singapore, which has higher math test scores, is trying to emulate the free and engaging learning environment in many U.S. schools.
Moreover, the U.S. university system remains an international leader as a place to learn, experiment and develop advanced scientific techniques and products, Flemings said.
Fears of complacency, disinterest
But some warn that domestic education trends are going the wrong way.
"We need not just to improve the quality of math scores, but ... the hands-on creative experience," said Flemings, who believes that strict "No Child Left Behind" guidelines hamper teachers' ability to involve students in hands-on activities.
While U.S. universities remain cutting-edge -- critical given that many large companies and research organizations have cut back on research-and-development -- relatively few young Americans take advantage of the educational opportunities.
The number of U.S. graduate students earning degrees in science, technology, engineering and math has dropped significantly over the last 20 years, according to a 2004 report by the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology. Similarly, bachelor's degrees in these subjects have declined -- even as demand for related services, jobs and expertise generally has increased.
While President Bush last year did propose increasing federal spending on research and development, some urge more concerted action by public officials and top businesses to inject more money, energy and initiative to stimulate ingenuity nationwide.
"We are being so complacent that other countries are advancing at a higher rate," Riddle Bird said. "I don't know if America will still be ahead years from now, but I do know that our children carry our hopes for the future."
A recent British study found that 8 of 10 inventions never see the light of day, with grand ideas thwarted by financial concerns and confusion on how to proceed, not to mention the immense challenge of actually bringing a product to market.
"So much work has to be done," said Brady. "It's not as easy as taking a sketch or prototype and getting it made."
Many companies -- some legitimate, others not -- help inventors create and market their products. Researchers at universities and large firms dedicated to innovation typically have greater security and opportunity.
Independent inventors have it especially hard. Not only might they forsake benefits such as paid vacations and health insurance, but they also often must put their own money on the line. Even if the product is made, they might fight to find willing retailers to sell it -- a particularly tough task when dealing with "huge mega-stores [with no] shelf space for the small guy," Brady said.
Whether an inventor is independent or a scientist toiling in a massive lab, there is no magic formula for an individual with a brilliant idea.
"It's hard to come up with a blanket approach. Too many things are too unique," said Cormier. "You have to really sit back and look at each product and the inventor's personality and skills."
Yet stiff challenges have not stopped people from reworking, fidgeting, and conceiving breakthrough innovations. And while more people in more countries have the education and resources to compete, Flemings, for one, remains confident that America's traditional can-do attitude will win the day.
"Failure in many countries remains what it used to be: failure," said Flemings. "Here, we think of failure as one step on the road to success."
Nearly half of all Americans believe the next Bill Gates will be Indian or Chinese, according to a recent poll.
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