Hawaii inventors had a banner year in 2010, winning a record number of patents for creations ranging from a repair kit for broken rubber slippers to a type of high-tech concrete that can detect cracking and weakness in bridges and other structures.
The 210 patents awarded to local residents last year was the most since the U.S. Patent Office began compiling state data in 1976, and represented a 57 percent jump over the 134 patents issued in 2009.
Part of the reason for the big increase, however, was probably the result of a new management team at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that has helped clear up a backlog of cases across the country, patent lawyers and agents say. Still, Hawaii’s increase was the second largest of any state and helped it move up to 43rd nationally in patents awarded from 46th place in 2009.
Hawaii’s most prolific patent producers were once again research and development teams at high-tech companies and the University of Hawaii. Hoana Medical Inc., a privately held medical device company, tied UH for the most patents, each receiving five. Oceanit Laboratories, an engineering, science and research company, landed four patents, while Cardax Pharmaceuticals received three.
But many of the local patents were awarded to "garage inventors" — individuals with no corporate or investor backing. Among the devices patented were a "miniature dental flossing packet," "air conditioned helmet apparatus," "hydrofoil for a surfboard," "lounge chair cover" and a "jet lag forecaster."
While many of the products might never make it onto store shelves, the Slipper Saver footwear repair kit designed by Big Island corrections officer Scott Mullen has caught the attention of retailers from Hilo to as far away as Rhode Island. Mullen said he has sold "tens of thousands" of the kits since introducing the product in 2007. Now that he has the imprimatur of the Patent Office, he can replace the "patent pending" footnote from his advertising and marketing materials with "patented."
Mullen said he was doing a brisk business even before the Slipper Saver was patented, but said he went through the process for several reasons.
"Ideas are real easily stolen, even with a patent, but this helps fend them off," said Mullen, 47. "And I wanted to see if it would go through. I started with an idea that no one else ever had. It’s something I always wanted to do."
The kit, which retails for between $1.49 and $1.99, is designed for slippers with a Y-shaped strap held in place by a knob underneath the sole of the shoe.
The No. 1 cause of rubber slipper breakage occurs when the knob on the end of the strap pulls through the sole and will no longer stay in place when it is pushed back through the hole. A rubber grommet from the Slipper Saver kit is snapped into the bottom of the slipper to reinforce the hole and prevent the knob from pulling through again.
When the knob on the end of the strap breaks off, the Slipper Saver kit includes two stainless-steel pins that are pushed through the broken end and held in place with the grommet. No tools are needed for either repair.
To see a video demonstration of the Slipper Saver, visit www.slippersaver.com.
The kit can fix slipper "blowouts," when the knob on the strap pulls through the sole and won’t stay in place when it is pushed back through the hole. The Slipper Saver provides a rubber grommet to be placed on the bottom of the shoe to reinforce the hole and prevent the knob from pulling through again.
For "super blowouts," when the knob on the end of the strap breaks off, Mullen’s kit includes two stainless-steel pins that are pushed through the broken end and held in place with the grommet. No tools are needed for either repair, he said
Although the kit is primarily geared toward emergency repairs when buying a new pair of slippers isn’t practical, many customers continue to use the repaired slipper until it wears out, Mullen said.
"It can add 300 to 500 hours to the life of a slipper. As bad as the economy is, people are buying it to fix slippers that cost $5 or $6, but it will work with some of the fashion slippers that cost $30."
The kit also includes a peel-and-stick rubber patch that can be used to reinforce a sole that is wearing thin or mend a broken strap.
He said the idea came to him in 1989 when his slipper broke while fishing on Oahu. Mullen said he used fishing line and cardboard to fashion a makeshift sandal so he could walk on the jagged lava back to his vehicle. Mullen said he talked to a lot of slipper wearers and conducted research on potential materials before filing for the patent in late 2006.
"My goal is to hopefully have someone buy the patent and make these by the millions so I can collect the royalties," Mullen said.
For Hawaii’s high-tech industry, patents can translate into licensing fees and royalties that help companies grow and attract new capital.
Among the more high-profile patents last year is one that involves a process developed by Oceanit using nanotechnology to create a type of "self-sensing" concrete. The concrete has the ability to transmit electrical impulses that can be used to determine the structural integrity of the concrete and the weight and speed of vehicles being driven on it. Oceanit engineer Vinod Veedu developed the process that uses so-called carbon nanotubes, which are thousands of times thinner than a human hair, to create a kind of nervous system within concrete.
A major breakthrough in developing the concrete, which is trademarked under the name Nanite, was achieving a uniform distribution of the carbon nanotubes, which tend to clump together, said John Kuriyama, who heads up Oceanit’s intellectual property division.
"It’s been a really high year for us, and we have a number of patents still in the works," Kuriyama said, noting that it can take from three to five years or more to obtain a patent.
He said the elimination of the Act 221 state tax credits for high-tech research this year could translate into fewer patents for the industry.
Robert Hunter, a patent agent from Waimea on the Big Island who represented Mullen, said he noticed the pace of patent issuances has improved since President Barack Obama appointed a new director of the Patent Office two years ago.
"It’s taken a couple of years to get the battleship turned, but the office is now a lot more helpful, more instructive," Hunter said.
A former engineer with 30 patents under his belt, Hunter said he learned long ago not to offer his clients advice on whether there is a market for their inventions.
"I will give them my opinion on whether what they have can be patented, but I will never give my opinion on whether it is marketable," Hunter said.
"You’ll always be surprised. I had a guy once who wanted to patent the concept of an eight-digit telephone number. The patent examiner was nervous. He didn’t want to end up being made fun of on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.
"But the former chief scientist for Microsoft — a billionaire — ended up buying the patent."