I n a career spanning more than 50 years, Lawrence (Larry) Udell has assisted numerous inventors and organizations around the world to commercialize innovations. Recently, we caught up with Larry to get an outline of his long and productive career.
Larry got his start in the late 40’s and early 50’s, commercializing two household innovations of his father’s. He was a Professor of Entrepreneurship at California State University for a decade. He also has worked with new venture teams at Stanford, UC Berkeley, UC Davis and other schools in helping the teams recognize opportunities. In his career, he has founded or co-founded more than fifty new ventures.
Today, Larry spends his days lecturing at universities, organizations and federal labs on the subject of how to turn ideas into commercial products. He focuses on the choices between starting a new company or licensing the technology and the various avenues of opportunities. He also works closely with a great many angel investors and venture capital firms in assisting in the decision making about new products.
As he always says, “I have more fun than anyone I know!” Over the last many decades, the new ventures have included:
• Aerospace Technologies
• Medical Products
• Solar Power
• Nano Technology
He tells people right up front, “I am not an expert on anything, I know a little bit about a lot of things. I have over 50 colleagues around the world that are experts from nuclear power to space and ocean exploration.”
His consulting clients have ranged from Mattel Toys to Siemens and from the Governor of Alaska to various federal agencies, including; DOC, DOE, NIST, NSF, USPTO. He created the California Inventors Association in San Francisco in 1956, which produced a major invention exhibition there in 1957. Larry also staged invention & new product exhibitions at the California State Fair attracting over a million attendees. Larry has been written up in the Wall Street Journal, Time magazine, New York Times, USA Today, Forbes and other publications.
He plans his days, weeks and months far in advance, but can get an email or call from an inventor that often disrupts his planning and he meets the caller to see if the invention has the potential he was told. Over the decades his corporate consulting paid for the time he devoted to garage inventors who could not afford his rates. He loves to tell people, “I have not had a boss since 1964 when I quit the corporate world, except for my wife of 55 years.”
In 1995, while at California State University he created the California Invention Center, with a grant of $100,000 from NIST, DOC and the USPTO to establish an inventor assistance and educational center on the campus. It grew over the next few years by producing inventor conventions, conferences and classes on teaching innovation and entrepreneurship. After leaving CSU he personally maintained the CIC with his own funds and earlier this year incorporated it as a not-for-profit 501C- 3. (www.CaliforniaInventionCenter.org)
CIC is a storehouse of all his published articles and resource center that is free to the viewer and has offices in downtown San Francisco. Since then he established a very impressive list of Advisory Board members who together are planning on making the CIC the most productive and creative inventor assistance program in America.
In 2000, after being a member of the Licensing Executive Society (www.les.org) since 1982, he created the Silicon Valley Chapter, which today is one of the most successful chapters of 13,000 members in 97 countries. It is the primary source of information about the big-wide-world of the $150 billion licensing industry. He works closely with many of the top technology companies in the Silicon Valley and beyond, both as an advisor and consultant. He has also established a close working relationship with venture capital firms and angel investors, sitting on the boards of many companies.
Larry started lecturing about inventors and their vital contributions to America and the world’s economy back in the early 1960’s. He is a vibrant exponent on the tremendous value of inventors and how they helped built this great nation and still doing so. A brief review of America’s history shows the earliest inventors and how they made the dramatic positive changes that established the USA as the primary creative force of innovation for the entire world.
Some of his success stories include; JumpSport, Inc., IPCOA, Napa Valley Wine Train, Eyefluence, and Oakland Packaging. Over the years he has helped inventors to stay out of trouble and helped others to get out of trouble. He says, “Inventors are very gullible and oftentimes easy to take advantage of.” There are numerous invention promotion companies around the US that promise everything from a quick fast patent to millions of dollars as they “steal” the hard-earned money out of the pockets of inventors with a dream.
“I wonder,” he said, “how many great potential products are sitting on the shelves of garages and basements across America that could be successful except for the fact their money was stolen by the invention promotion firms and the inventor becomes discouraged, and their spouse to say, ‘I told you so.’”
He is a proponent of preparing a new invention or product for licensing rather than start a new business and realize a heavy financial burden on attempting to commercialize their “brain-child”. In one of his many lectures he shows the difference, both in preparation and expense in starting a new venture compared to licensing. He will be presenting at the annual USPTO Inventors Conference on August 15 and 16 in Alexandria, Virginia.
He points out the various positives and negatives of both, with detailed explanations about those famous inventors he has worked with over the decades and how and why the decision was made to pursue either a new venture or licensing.
As he puts it, “I have had the unique pleasure of working with such illustrious creative individuals as; the famous, Alexander M. Poniatoff, founder of AMPEX; Bob Parker, inventor of the Mood Ring and Duracell battery tester; Mark Publicover, inventor of Jump Sport the safety net around trampolines; James Kovach, former 49er, doctor and lawyer on sports injuries technologies; Jim Fergason, the father of (LCD) Liquid Crystal Display with over 130 US patents and 300 foreign patents.
Larry was responsible for his induction into the Inventors Hall of Fame and winner of the MIT-Lemelson $500,000 inventor award, which he very graciously donated to various children’s hospitals. Larry also worked with the world-famous Dr. Forrest Bird who has been honored by both President Bush and President Obama for his respirator in every hospital in the world and the countless infant lives that have been saved. Dr. Bird also happens to be the oldest licensed helicopter pilot in the world at 93.
Then there is Curtis Landi, inventor of flexible honeycomb with over 120 US patents. His products are used in the new Boeing Dreamliner, hospitals, hotels and numerous other uses. Then you have Martin Cooper, inventor of the cell phone and Don Evans who began his inventor career on the kitchen table when he got out of the Navy in 1945 and created a world-wide billion dollar (privately owned) corporation that manufactures injection molded products from artificial finger nails to hypodermic needles.
Larry spoke about the time he met the famous Henry J. Kaiser, one of America’s great industrialists who helped win the Second World War with his hundreds of Liberty Ships, his automobiles and his famous Kaiser Permanente Hospitals providing health care to millions of patients. He was at Kaiser World Headquarters in Oakland California presenting an inventor who built, by hand, a micrometer that measured to one-millionth of an inch, long before electronics and computers.
I asked if he had ever met Steve Jobs. His he attended Steve’s 30th birthday party in Los Angeles that was hosted by their mutual friend Arthur Lipper, publisher of Venture magazine. Larry said he rode down the elevator with Steve and will never forget that he had on a white shirt and tie and they spoke about the future and creativity. They followed up briefly over the next few years, but as he puts it, “I should have maintained a closer relationship since we both were following a path of invention.”
He went on to express his opinion about inventors and inventing. He said that inventors are the backbone of America since it is one of only a few ways to become independently wealthy today, unless you win the lottery or have a rich relative that lists you in their will. If you walk the aisles of any major retailer, you will see new products today that were not there last week. Over 28,000 new products are introduced every year to American consumers.
Not necessarily inventions turned into products, but lots of improvements on existing products. If you watch closely and devote some time to the internet you will easily see some great new innovations transformed into new products.
One of the biggest obstacles facing an inventor is the sales and marketing. Where and how do you introduce them to the market? The shelves are full and if you are going to compete with established companies you are going to have to pay for quality shelf space. An independent inventor has to finance the production and if they don’t sell, will be obligated to take them back. And, in many cases not getting paid for three or four months after delivery.
Can individual inventors finance that? Almost always the answer is no, so they go out looking for investment capital. When you are seeking funding, be very careful who you take it from. If it is friends and family, you may wind up never being invited to Thanksgiving again. Obtaining capital usually means you have to sign over certain personal assets or equity as collateral. There is also the (SBA) Small Business Administration that has a budget of about two billion a year, which guarantees the funds to a bank. It can be complicated so be careful.
Larry constantly hears inventors say they will get venture capital to fund their idea. It’s unlikely, since VC’s will not even talk to you without credentials or a referral. In most cases, they’re not interested unless you can justify at least a $5 million dollar investment. Investment means they are buying equity in your corporation, not in you as an individual. Besides if you are a one-person company, they will want to see a team comprised of not only previously successful entrepreneurs or team members with credentials like Ph.D. or M.D.
We asked Larry about raising capital and as he phrased it, you have “Angel Investors” and venture capital groups. The angels are comprised of individuals with the personal wealth that allows them to invest and not be financially ruined if it is a failure. He has read that in the US there is approximately $100 billion available investment capital in both venture and angel communities. From his experience, there is no shortage of investment monies, but you need to have done your elaborate homework and prepared numerous documents and presentations that justify the investment you are asking for.
Generally, they will be asking for at least a five-fold over their investment within 3-5 years. There are many great books available on how to prepare for fund raising. These include “Crowd-Funding,” which he is still not convinced is the way to go, especially since the SEC has not quite finalized all the rules and requirements.
He’d also like to add that capital is not the only issue to your business launch or success. You and your family need to be in on the decisions made committing your life and resources to your dream. Remember if you lose or go bankrupt, they also suffer from your fruitless endeavor. You cannot afford to be wrong when you are betting your future and that of those you love. I once knew an inventor who went so far as to quit his job, borrow against his home and lost not only his home and his wife and children.
When Larry traveled to foreign countries for WIPO (United Nations) and lectured on creating economic diversity, he was constantly barraged by inventors who pleaded with him to take their idea back to America and make them rich. They thought that ours was the automatic land of opportunity. It can be, but he wants us to remember that they are not handed to you. “
The one thing we have today, that did not exist in most of my 83 years, was computers and the internet. With the limitless boundaries at your fingertips there is no excuse for not being properly prepared. Do your very extensive research on competitive products, markets, distribution and all of the other obvious ingredients to turn your idea into a winning product.”
Constantly trying to help, learn and grow, you can contact Larry for opinions and comments at: [email protected].