By Dan Voorhis, The Wichita Eagle
Ethan Eck remembers dumping agricultural chemicals into a farm sprayer as being kind of a pain in the rear.
If you are doing it a few dozen times a day, and you're supposed to rinse out and dispose of the jugs, too -- and an expensive machine sits idling for the minutes it takes to complete those chores -- then it is more than an inconvenience. It's an entrepreneurial opportunity.
That's certainly what Eck and partner Ralph Lagergren hope. Eck, age 23, is the inventor of the Chem-Blade, a stainless steel gadget with blades that fits inside the plastic induction tank used to mix expensive farm chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides for farm sprayers. A farmer jams a plastic 2.5 gallon jug of herbicide onto the blades, which slice open the bottom, emptying the jug. A water jet then rinses the open jug.
Working out of a spacious metal building on the Eck family farm north of Kingman, he and Lagergren have already developed a next-generation Chem-Blade, a powered version called the Chem-Blade ES that received national attention earlier this year at a farm show called the Commodity Classic in Phoenix.
In the course of a day, the device might give farmers back 30 minutes, they said.
They have filed two patents so far and expect to file seven more.
The partners are among an ever-growing number of inventors seeking patents in Kansas over the past five years. Since 2010, Kansas-based inventors for Kansas-based companies have registered 6,300 patents. That's about 100 a month, and it's nearly double the number of patents filed in the previous five years.
The United States as a whole has seen similar growth -- with 615,243 total patents, including a record 300,000 utility patents, in 2014. The biggest filers tend to be technology companies, with IBM, the traditional top filer with more than 7,000 patents last year.
So far Eck has sold about 500 of the original Chem-Blade units, at about $550 each. They are hunting for licensees to manufacture the Chem-Blade ES, so a unit is probably a year away from the market.
Lagergren has been guiding Eck on how to move his invention beyond a homemade gadget that is sold out of the back of a pickup. Eck's big idea was to rent space at the 2013 Kansas State Fair, where he sold just two or three units after enduring day after day of 100-plus-degree heat.
Lagergren convinced him they should push to get the device into the hands of big distributors, such as Fairbank Equipment in Wichita that have established customers and advertising muscle.
The market is there, they said. Spraying has replaced a lot of the mechanical tilling done to control weeds in fields because it is faster, helps prevent erosion and can be better for the soil.
Their argument is that farmers' time has become so valuable that a farmer will spend a few thousand dollars for a gadget that empties a jug in half a second and then rinse it out. It ensures all of the chemical is used, that the farmer doesn't get any on his hands or face, and that he's not violating environmental rules. A second unit will shred it.
"Spraying didn't used to be that big a deal," Lagergren said. "Now they can have 120-foot booms and travel 10 to 15 miles an hour. They can put down a lot of chemical."
Whether to pursue a patent or other protection is a cost-benefit decision for the inventor, explains Crissa Cook, a intellectual property attorney with Hovey Williams in Overland Park.
Hiring an attorney to do patent research can cost several hundred dollars. Hiring an attorney to prepare the patent application can cost $8,000 to $10,000, plus a few thousand more to negotiate the final patent with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
She recommends inventors do their own initial search, for free, at at www.ustpo.gov or www.google.com/patents.
Early questions that must be answered: Is it new? Is it not obvious? Would a trademark or copyright be more appropriate? Is more development needed to perfect the technology? Is there a market for it? Every step must be documented, in a notebook in which the pages can't be removed.
"When you get to the conception stage and, maybe, have a prototype, that is a good time to set up a consultation with a patent attorney," Cook said.
The increasing number of patents, she said, is caused by a general acceleration in the pace of technological change in business, especially technology companies. About half of her clients are small inventors, rather than big corporations, she said, which may be a product of the deep recession that hit almost seven years ago.
"They lost a job, or they just had more time on their hands and had this idea bouncing around," she said. "And these days you can get something built and get a website up for less money and maybe sell a few. It's become kind of an everyman phenomenon."
A change in patent law in 2013, she said, has accelerated the drive to patent by giving protection to the "first to file" rather than the "first to invent," which eliminates disputes over who deserves the patent, but encourages more rapid filing.
Eck had some advice for inventors: They should think hard about revealing their invention to a person or team, so they can bounce design ideas off of them, ask for help in marketing, fundraising and legal work.
Eck had developed the Chem-blade about 18 months ago and had a sold a few when he attended classes at the Kansas Small Business Development Center at Wichita State University. The center called Lagergren and asked him to talk Eck to see if he could help. Initially reluctant, Lagergren got excited after he talked to Eck.
Eck said that Lagergren's strategic thinking and knowledge of marketing has dramatically changed the trajectory of the Chem-Blade. He'll get less per unit, but the prospects for selling a lot of them have gone way up.
"They treat it like their baby and won't let anybody see it," he said of an invention's design. "It's better because you're a team."
Lagergren said that inventors have to embark on the journey to protect and commercialize their creations for the right reasons.
"If they are only doing it for money, you'll give up because it's too hard," he said.
And he also cautioned against inventors' unrealistic expectations.
"They'll spend all their money on a patent and then sit back and wait for the checks to roll in," he said. "Their biggest problem is getting it to market, not somebody stealing it."