Area inventors make their (trade) marks around the world

TRAVERSE CITY – A lot of John Emory's thoughts begin with the same two words: "I wonder." Talk to other people like John, and you'll find that this isn't all that unusual. That's because John is an inventor.

"I'm always thinking about any way something could be made better. I've got one of those minds. In fishing, I look for mistakes that other people make and I think about ways that I could help them."

Emory is the proprietor of Legendary Products, a fishing attractor company that he runs from his home on Neahtawanta Drive on Old Mission Peninsula. His days are spent thinking up new ways for fishing enthusiasts to capture a fish's attention. So far, he's developed the Roll-Troll, the Smart Fish, and the Elberta Clip'er, among others. Those are the product names for two adjustable dodgers and a sinker clipper, respectively, for use by salmon fishermen (and women) on the Great Lakes and even the oceans. He knows first hand that they work: this fall he won first place and $1,500 in the Critter Control Salmon Fishing Tournament using some of his own inventions.

"I like to fish the tournaments, but even then, I'm thinking about new products," he said.

Emory holds five patents and has one patent pending. His attractors are available for sale in retail sporting goods stores and on the Internet via his website, Besides Michigan, he also has distribution arrangements in New York, Wisconsin and Ohio and is working on a deal that would cover the state of Alaska. He works with manufacturers in Kalkaska and Southfield, but owns the tooling for the plastic moulds they use. His goal, he says, is to build the company until it becomes too large to continue to be a home business, and then sell it. That's what he did with his first company, Big John, Inc., which developed fishing lures. Lures, he explains, hook the fish, and attractors make them bite. From the sale of Big John, Emory amassed start-up capital to form Legendary Products.

For anyone with an idea for an invention, money is the crucial, and often missing, ingredient. The fee to apply for and receive a patent from the U.S. Patent Office starts at $6,000. The costs to manufacture samples, meet with potential investors, develop business plans, and conduct preliminary market testing can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars or more.

"Everyone has an idea, but not everyone has the determination, the belief in their product, or for that matter the money to see it through," said Rick Freundl, another area inventor.

In 2004, Freundl sold his invention, the LaunchPad, a product for snow ski racing courses, for "five figures." Today, when he's not busy with his career as president of Northern Title Agency, Inc. on Union Street in Traverse City, he's thinking up other sports-related inventions.

"Well, right now I've got this golf idea …" he says, "but I'm not really ready to go public with it yet. It might not even be legal, as far as the PGA is concerned."

He's talking about the Professional Golfers Association of America, and for sports-related products, especially those designed to be used in competition, trade association approval is crucial. It was certification from the International Ski Federation (FIS), based in Switzerland, that put Freundl on the map, so to speak, with LaunchPad.

A graduate of Traverse City St. Francis High School and Northwestern Michigan College, after graduation Freundl found himself working with the Army Racing Team in the Bavarian Alps. He became frustrated when he'd watch his first racer get a perfect start out of the blocks, but subsequent racers would struggle with the deeper and deeper holes left in the snow by previous racers' ski poles. So, he set out to solve his team's problem. And, because he had extensive skiing experience, the time to think about a product that would work, and a father in the manufacturing business, he was well-positioned to be successful.

"I had everything at my fingertips to make this product," he said. "Access to a CAD system (Computer Aided Design) racing experience, and manufacturing."

Freundl experimented with different materials until he found one that could stand up to the cold weather and repeated abuse by ski poles. Sugar Loaf and Boyne Mountain ski schools tried it out and he sold 25 sets for $125 each to a ski resort in Vermont, and that's when his big break came. FIS officials just happened to be visiting and saw the LaunchPad. They liked what they saw, and the next thing Freundl knew, he was watching racers use his idea at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan. It continues to be used at the Olympics and at the World Cup ski races.

"There's nothing like the feeling of turning on the TV, and there's your idea, and millions of people are watching, and it's doing exactly what it's designed to do," he said.

Dennis Weston, of GeoFurnace Heating & Cooling in Traverse City, would be happy if his invention could be seen in a few thousand backyards. He and three colleagues have invented a geothermal heat pump system, called the Geo-Hybrid, that could potentially capture a fifth of the $280 million ground source heat pump market, and they're looking for investors to help make that happen.

"The idea sprung purely by the evolution of the services we already provide," Weston said. "We just looked at the products already available and thought, 'Gee, what if this were smaller and cheaper and quicker?'"

Weston and his colleagues worked on a prototype and applied for a patent a year ago. Their patent is pending, and so is the Geo-Hybrid, while they write a business plan and seek capital. Weston's colleagues are Rex Ambs, Jim Holstine and Tom Kiessel, who also work at GeoFurnace. The new invention is considered "green energy" meaning it is less harmful to the environment than current products already available, and it can be installed on an existing residential furnace. Weston said homeowners could save half or more of their heating and cooling costs by installing the pump. About four million traditional air source pumps are sold per year, Weston said, and about 100,000 geo pumps. The Geo-Hybrid would offer customers a choice that incorporates the best characteristics of each of those.

Emory, Freundl, and Weston all came up with their ideas in the course of their daily lives or careers, which is the way most non-corporate inventions are figured out, patented, and sold. Each was in a unique position to identify both a problem and a solution to it. That, and a lot of hard work.

"People who don't understand what you're trying to do will have a million reasons why you should give up and not pursue your idea," said Freundl. "You're the one who has to hang on to the one reason that you know you should. Because you know it will make somebody's life somewhere a little easier, a little better."