Woody Norris, 66, Chairman, American Technology Corp.
Inventor, AirScooter gyrocopter and HyperSonicSound directed-acoustic device; winner, $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize, 2005
Almost nothing has been invented yet. OK, all the easy stuff has been invented, like the lightbulb-what's that: a coil, wire and a vacuum? You don't need to stick to one field, but the inventions where you don't have to possess a great deal of knowledge-the hula hoop, the Frisbee-those are all gone.
Find a niche where big corporate groups don't dominate.
A new solid rocket fuel or a hadron collider-those are
multimillion-dollar investments. Ask yourself, is it realistic for me to invent this?
Then ask: Is it commercially plausible? If you invent
a novel ballpoint pen that's going to cost $100,000,
nobody's going to care.
Find an analogy, something well established in one area
of science-acoustics, physics, optics, electronics
-and apply it to a different area. You know it works in one field, so it's worth your time to test it in another.
Call a professor who works in the field your invention falls under. Offer to buy him lunch and then pick his brain. Same goes for a patent lawyer, who will usually talk to you for half an hour for free.
Pay attention to problems that need to be solved,
whether you're in a restaurant or working on your car.
One of my favorite quotes I heard somewhere is "Most inventions are accidents observed."
Make a prototype, even if you have to fashion it out of clay or carve it out of paraffin wax with a paring knife.
Once you have your invention, check to make sure nothing
like it has been patented yet. I like to use delphion.com
Patent everything. You don't want someone to tweak one thing on your invention, patent it, and negate all your effort. Someone could find a cheaper-even if it's a worse-way to do it, so I patent even the terrible versions of my idea.
Don't be secretive. Worrying about someone stealing your invention can stifle you. You need to talk to other people to expand your knowledge base. I talk about all my ideas, and in more than 30 years of inventing, I've never had anyone steal one.
-as told to Sarah Z. Wexler