By Mike Drummond
It’s late February and Patrick Raymond is on the defensive.
As the new executive director of the United Inventors Association, he runs a nonprofit organization that has struggled at times to find purpose and relevance. Since its founding in 1990, the UIA has collected annual membership dues from inventors and invention service providers. But many in the extended UIA family have wondered what they got in return.
To remedy this, the UIA in February officially launched a new certification program to help inventor-entrepreneurs find credible service providers in an industry rife with scam artists.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark office lists inventor complaints against alleged dodgy inventor-service providers. But the USPTO lacks any enforcement power. The Federal Trade Commission can investigate and prosecute fraud, but cases can take years to resolve.
So in steps the UIA under Raymond, a Shakespeare-quoting Gen-Xer who says the new certification program is “democracy, separation of powers, openness and fairness at its finest.”
The UIA certification program strengthens a previously loosely managed professional membership designation that allowed companies to put the UIA’s logo on their Web sites. While he solicited input from across the inventor industry before launch, the program bears his DNA.
The plan comes amid warmer acceptance of regulatory oversight after a decade of laissez-faire government monitoring of the financial, housing and other industries. Raymond also hopes the program can help generate more revenue for the UIA so it can invest in better educational programs for inventors.
“The main purpose of the program is not money,” he says. “We were already collecting membership money. Actually, this program may turn some money away.”
The thrust of the new UIA plan is a list of 40 questions Raymond calls “invasive” and “tough.” Inventor service providers that answer these questions to the satisfaction of a UIA staffer and four board members who serve on the certification committee can qualify for certification. Once certified, they can then pick among four membership levels with annual dues ranging from $249 to $4,999. Certification is free for local groups.
“The facts are checked by a staff member who does not vote and has absolutely no vested interest one way or another,” he explains. “Then the Committee votes in a yes/no blind poll. I am just one man with one vote.”
UIA certification comes with a UIA-Certified Digital Seal companies can stamp on their Web sites. It’s sort of like the Better Business Bureau’s Accredited Business Seal program, which also entails a list of questions and payment of $300 to $3,000 depending on the size of the company and where it’s located.
Raymond, 39, has worn many hats in a career spanning more than a decade, according to his LinkedIn profile, including a year at ad agency Ogilvy & Mather working with Fortune 50 clients, another year at Wunderman, a couple of years at his own consultancy and as the inventor of the ShowerBow shower curtain device.
“In my personal experience as an inventor,” he says, “I recall that one of the most difficult things was finding the right service provider at different stages of the process. It was an agony, actually.
“The UIA can’t solve everything, nor does it suggest that inventors not perform their own diligence,” he adds. “But the UIA can help inventors save time and money.”
About 60 companies and service providers – including Inventors Digest – had become or were invited to transition to be UIA-certified by the end of February.
Jack Lander, a longtime Inventors Digest columnist, seasoned inventor mentor and past president of the UIA, was among them.
The UIA has “never fulfilled a well-defined, comprehensive service to inventors,” Lander says from his Connecticut home. “This idea of a certification process has been dearly needed because inventors get taken so often. It’s at least a reasonable assurance you’re dealing with reputable people.”
Inventor Mark Tanguay of Anchorage, Alaska, concurs.
“After reviewing the application for certification, I am pleased that these questions are being asked,” Tanguay wrote in an online post. “Without strict guidelines, membership to UIA would be nothing more than a paid endorsement. Any organization that feels these questions are unfair or intrusive should not be allowed to join, because they would clearly have something to hide.”
Board member and former UIA Executive Director Bonnie Griffin Kaake says the model isn’t perfect, but a list of certified companies offers a good place for inventors to start.
“For those who want to pick a provider from that list, it’s also their responsibility to understand what those companies do,” she says. “You still have to do due diligence on them. Because they answered the questions to the UIA’s satisfaction doesn’t mean the services they provide are the best for a particular inventor.”
Yet not everyone in the inventor industry believes Raymond has thought this whole certification thing through. And this is what had him playing defense earlier this year. He parried hostile e-mails from would-be allies and endured anonymous barbs.
“It’s a &*#@ing crazy idea fraught with problems,” one UIA board member, who requested anonymity, told Inventors Digest. “I think he’s making a big mistake. It could be the downfall of the UIA, quite frankly.”
According to critics, if the UIA whitelists some companies and turns away others – a well-financed invention-submission outfit, say – the nonprofit risks inviting a devastating lawsuit.
“There’s no shortage of unscrupulous inventor-service providers out there,” says Don Kelly, a founding member of the UIA. “But, warning prospective victims about such misbehavior is a range of magnitude away from policing it.”
Conflict of interest poses another set of criticisms Raymond and the UIA have had to fend.
Some of the board members offer inventor services, including patent, legal and product-development help.
“In the rare instance when a committee member is in the same line of business as the applicant, and is technically a competitor,” says Raymond, “then that committee member can and will excuse themselves from voting in that particular case.”
Enter San Francisco-based product-development firm AbsolutelyNew (see sidebar). The firm’s CEO worked for Inventors’ Publishing & Research or IP&R, a defunct but infamous inventor-service provider.
AbsolutelyNew was among the first companies the UIA certified. Raymond later joined AbsolutelyNew’s advisory board.
“There is no conflict because of the sequence of events,” Raymond explains. “I told them I would not consider sitting on their board until they were a UIA Professional Member. AbsolutelyNew’s acceptance as a UIA Professional Member came in December and I did not take part in the Certification Committee vote at that time. I took the position in January after visiting them.”
UIA President Ron Reardon supports Raymond’s presence on AbsolutelyNew’s advisory board.
“He’s there to make sure (AbsolutelyNew) is not like the previous company and is doing the right thing for inventors,” Reardon says. “I don’t know if you want to call him a watchdog, but he’s there to make sure they’re doing things correctly.”
Rounding out the more vocal critics of the new UIA certification program is Stephen Key, co-founder of inventor services company inventRight in Turlock, Calif.
According to the UIA, “Certification does not imply endorsement or guarantee of your service or group. The UIA does not take part in transactions between you and your inventor clients/members.”
Key takes umbrage
“Once you pay [the] UIA for the certification and get certified, you get the emblem to display on your Web site and other material,[sic] but it does not imply an endorsement from [the] UIA,” Key e-mailed Inventors Digest. “Hmm, I guess you can have it both ways.”
Key, who has since quit the UIA, declined requests to elaborate.
“An endorsement would be ‘use this prototyper because he is the best.’ We make no such claim,” Raymond says. “We simply say: ‘This provider agreed to comply with rigorous professional and ethical standards.'”
In the end, you can almost hear Patrick Raymond sigh.
He agreed to serve as the executive director of the UIA to shake things up. Blow the stink off some dated policies and practices. Reinvigorate an organization in need of vigor.
He launched a certification program that he and the board say they’re willing to tweak, as need be.
He may not have fully appreciated the criticisms the certification program would generate, but he appears fully able to defend it.
Perhaps his best defense is that he’s trying to do something right for the inventor community.
If it doesn’t work, if the critics prevail and if Raymond suffers Hamlet’s slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, he may want to quote another late playwright, Clare Booth Luce.
She once said, “No good deed goes unpunished.”
The five-person UIA Professional Certification Committee is composed of one UIA staff member and four UIA board members. The UIA keeps committee identities confidential “to shield them from any undue pressure.”
The board members are:
Ron Reardon, UIA president. Registered patent agent, www.patentsandmore.com.
Gerald G. Udell, UIA vice president. Executive director of the Center for Business and Economic Development at Southwest Missouri State University; senior partner at Innovation Institute, www.innovation-institute.com.
Norman Goldstein, UIA treasurer. Founder of By Kids For Kids, www.bkfk.com.
Orville Crain, UIA secretary. Co-owner of Klever Innovations, www.kleverinnovations.net.
Bonnie Griffin Kaake. President of Innovative Consulting Group. E-mail [email protected].
Steve Greenberg. Author of Gadget Nation: A Journey Through The Eccentric World of Invention, www.gadgetnation.net.
Pamela Riddle Bird. Founder and CEO of Innovative Product Technologies Inc., www.inventone.com.
Warren Tuttle. Founder of Monashee Marketing. E-mail [email protected].
Gene Quinn. Founder of IPWatchdog.com and a founding partner at patent law firm White + Quinn, PC.
Know Your Rights
The American Inventors Protection Act of 1999 gives you certain rights when dealing with invention promoters. Before an invention promoter can enter into a contract with you, it must disclose the following information about its business practices during the past five years:
- how many inventions it has evaluated,
- how many of those inventions got positive or negative evaluations,
- its total number of customers,
- how many of those customers received a net profit from the promoter’s services and,
- how many of those customers have licensed their inventions due to the promoter’s services.