California inventor Norman Fawley had a great idea for a new technology. Fawley believed that adding resin-impregnated glass filaments to aluminum could increase the metal's ability to withstand pressure. Cylinders produced with this material might make it safe and practical to use natural gas as a vehicle fuel.
But, since Fawley and his invention were unproven commodities, it was difficult for him to find financial backing to develop, test and market his idea. After several years of knocking on doors and being told, "That's a great idea. Make sure you pick up a calendar on your way out," Fawley sought help from a federal government program conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Department of Energy.
Called ERIP, the 18-year-old Energy-Related Inventions Program helps individual inventors or small businesses develop and market energy-saving or energy-producing ideas. NIST provides free technical evaluations of inventions and recommends those that have commercial promise to DOE for possible financial support. Through the program, inventors also receive other support such as market assessments, workshops, concept or prototype development, and laboratory testing.
"Getting a good idea from the concept stage to market requires more than knowing your technology. You must know how to successfully negotiate the obstacles that stand between you and the market," says George Lewett, chief of the NIST Office of Technology Evaluation and Assessment.
In addition, ERIP can give inventors what many of them need and want most--credibility. "Without credibility, it's likely the individual inventor will have difficulty finding financial support," says Lewett.
"Financial institutions like to know that the technology they are dealing with is sound. If they don't, chances are the inventor's request for funding will be rejected," he says. "With a favorable NIST review, inventors often can take an idea to the bank and get the funds or other support they need."
Through the ERIP, Fawley received two $50,000 DOE grants to test his technology two ways: as fuel cylinders for storing compressed natural gas and as an improved method for making gas transmission pipes. Fawley's fuel cylinders have been installed in fleet vehicles of about 200 companies in the United States and Canada. He now has several companies developing products for the automotive and pipeline industries.
In another example, Tennessee inventors Garry Kenny and Edward Sommer were trying to develop a recycling process for separating metals, such as aluminum and steel, from municipal waste. After attending a workshop sponsored by ERIP, they submitted their idea to the program and received a grant to design, build and test a prototype of the recovery system. Eventually their company, Magnetic Separation Systems of Nashville, licensed the technology to two U.S. firms and Siemens AG of Germany.
Another idea that went through the program and became a market success is a packing ring designed by New York inventor Ronald Brandon. His device reduces wear and allows a tighter seal during operation of steam turbines that drive electrical generators in power plants.
Yet another example is an invention that makes it possible to ship fresher-tasting produce, such as tomatoes, long distances without refrigeration. Inventor Karakian Bedrosian of New Jersey uses controlled-atmosphere packaging to keep oxygen at a minimum, while maintaining desired levels of water vapor and carbon dioxide. Retail sales of his invention have surpassed the $40 million mark.
Inventions such as these are a relatively select group. Of the more than 30,000 inventions submitted to NIST since the program started in 1975, NIST has recommended just 600 for DOE assistance. Lewett says at least 109 of these technologies have made it to the market and generated more than $500 million in sales.
An invention that passes an initial review undergoes a rigorous evaluation by a NIST staff engineer who draws on the expertise of a national network of hundreds of consultants from government, industry and academia. Typically, each invention is reviewed by at least two expert consultants.
Three key questions are asked: Is the invention technically feasible? Does it have a strong potential for saving or producing energy? Does it have a reasonable chance of becoming a commercial success? If the answers to all three are "yes," NIST forwards the proposal to DOE for financial support or other assistance toward further development and commercialization. The one-time DOE grants typically range between $50,000 and $100,000, with an average of $83,000.
Inventions not recommended to DOE get the benefit of a free expert evaluation. If an invention does not warrant further review, the key reasons are identified. Frequently, says Lewett, the inventor continues development and tries again. He adds, "We are always willing to reconsider our position if the inventor can provide further details or new information."
ERIP assistance provided to individuals and small businesses does not stop at evaluations and financial and commercialization assistance. For the past 13 years, the program has sponsored a series of National Innovation Workshops across the nation. The two-day workshops give practical guidance and information to inventors and entrepreneurs through lectures and panel discussions. Advice is given on turning ideas into inventions and getting help from both public and private sources. More than 7,000 innovators have attended these workshops.
Lewett feels that the key to America's success in the world marketplace is the innovation and creativity of the individual inventor. "Our future technological and economic growth will depend in no small part on inventions and innovations by individuals and small companies. ERIP can play an important role by helping make the journey from idea to market an easier one," he says.
Inventors and small businesses wanting more information on ERIP are invited to contact: Office of Technology Evaluation and Assessment, NIST, Building 411, Room A115, Gaithersburg, Md. 20899-0001, (301) 975-5500