Monday, August 24, 2009
Answering Requests, Part II
"But maybe something learned from any past attempts at entrepreneurship?"
I haven't learned anything especially revelatory, but one thing I learned is that a good idea isn't worth a whole lot if you can't sell it, and if you can't sell it, it may not even be a good idea.
The idea, in my case, was an invention to protect football players from breaking their necks. I started thinking about this after watching a defensive linemen break his neck during an NFL game. I figured that, with all the advances in protective equipment over the years, there ought to be a way to prevent this. I did some research and found a seminal study by Dr. Joseph Torg1. Dr. Torg realized that, unlike most cervical spine injuries, football injuries were often caught film, and he used that film to analyze them. From that, he discovered the primary mechanism by which these injuries occurred, which he called axial loading. Essentially, when your head is upright, your cervical spine is slightly curved, like an inverted, elongated "c", and when you tilt your head forward at an angle of about 30 degrees, it becomes more like a segmented column. This is where it's most vulnerable to a blow to the crown of your head, which can compress and fracture your cervical vertebrae.
Equipment designed to protect football players' necks worked by restricting the range of motion of the head and neck, but did nothing to protect against axial loading. So, in consultation with an acquaintance who was an engineer, I invented a solution, an 'over-helmet' shell which would be loosely connected by springs to a regular football helmet underneath (the springs were just there to keep the over-helmet from rattling against the regular helmet), as shown in the goofy-looking CAD drawing above. This invention would permit but limit motion of a player's head and neck in all directions, within the player's natural range of motion, and it would also transfer forces incident on the over-helmet to the player's shoulders, thus sparing his cervical spine.
I thought this was a great idea, but I really had no clue what to do with it. I knew there was a significant market for it if this became standard equipment in football. From a Fermi approximation, I figured there were about a million high school football players in America, and my engineer estimated this contraption, made of fiberglass and steel, would cost about $50 to manufacture. I knew that helmets and shoulder pads each retailed for a few hundred dollars apiece. I applied for a patent on this invention, and then contacted the handful of companies that manufactured helmets and shoulder pads. No interest. What next? I heard later that these manufacturers generally are unimpressed with patent-type drawings and prefer to see working prototypes. Fortunately, there was a shop that made prototypes in my county. Unfortunately, they wanted a six figure deposit to build one, which I didn't have. So this ended up getting filed away in my Grandiose Ideas file, after I spent about $5k in patent attorney fees2. And today the goofy CAD drawing smiles at me from my computer screen, as if mocking me.
I still come up with grandiose ideas today. I can't help it. But I can focus my energies on more feasible ideas, and that's what I'm trying to do now. The problem with my neck-protector idea, aside from the cost of getting one manufactured and tested, was that to get it adopted would require a revolution of sorts: you'd most likely sell everyone or no one with this; there likely wouldn't be an incremental adoption. Not an impossible task, but not one I was up to at the time.
1That link lists Dr. Torg as an emeritus faculty member at Temple, but if memory serves, he was at Penn at the time. Coincidentally, I ended up cold calling his son a few years later, when I was a trainee at a boutique investment bank in Manhattan. His son (a Florida-based attorney) and I had a very pleasant conversation, about Dr. Torg among other subjects, and said he looked forward to hearing an investment idea from me in the future. He never did though. Most likely, he heard one for the fellow I was assigned to cold call for, a former Sbarro's manager with slicked-back hair named Vinny or Frank or something, I forget.
2Apparently, patent legal work costs a lot more these days. Recently I consulted with my attorney about getting a patent on an algorithm I'm having developed for a site. He forwarded it to his colleague who specializes in intellectual property and she gave a ball park estimate of tens of thousands of dollars in fees to get a new patent. She also said that since the algorithm would be a "business process" patent, and since the validity of these patents was going to be reviewed by the Supreme Court, it basically wasn't worth pursuing at this point.