OTTAWA – The federal government wants to tap the skills of obscure basement inventors and turn their tinkering into innovative consumer products.
A new survey for Industry Canada has found that almost 13 per cent of Canadians are so-called “private innovators,” who have improved on consumer goods or created new products in the last three years.
Recent research in the United States and elsewhere has found similar numbers of ordinary basement tinkerers, regarded by some as a talent pool that consumer-products firms need to harness to find fresh profits.
“The consumer innovations uncovered by researchers abroad arise in many sectors, including software, gaming, sporting equipment and automotive,” says an Industry Canada description of the survey project.
“Consumers either freely shared their innovations with other consumers or with producers, or carried on as entrepreneurs themselves.”
A landmark 2011 research paper by lead author Eric von Hippel, an MIT professor in Cambridge, Mass., argued that consumer-products companies need to pay more attention to these amateur inventors.
“Companies will have to help their own product developers look at consumer-developed innovations with new eyes — not just as poorly engineered amateurish efforts,” says the paper.
History is full of consumer innovations that went from obscurity to millions of dollars of sales in short order.
Among them, the dishwasher, invented in 1886 by a wealthy matron in Illinois who wanted to avoid the chipped dishware that was the inevitable result when her servants did the washing. Josephine Cochrane made extra dishwashers for friends, and eventually created a company that became part of Whirlpool Corp.
Skateboards began as roller-skate wheels nailed to boards by teenagers, a home-grown product later adopted and improved by manufacturers for profit.
Industry Canada paid $80,000 to a survey firm, Ekos Research Associates Inc., to determine how many Canadians were themselves making the products of tomorrow in their workshops. Ekos then interviewed some 1,000 so-called consumer innovators.
The report, delivered in March, found that Canada’s basement inventors are primarily young males with degrees in science or technical disciplines.
Those who immigrated were more likely to have come from the United States or South Asia. Most worked alone. Almost nobody patented their inventions, but created products solely for their own use.
“The majority of consumer innovators have developed a product that is essentially the same in functionality as other similar products or services that are available in the market (40 per cent) or an improvement to something that already exists (28 per cent),” says the report, obtained under the Access to Information Act.
“Most consumers developed their innovation in a relatively short period of time, averaging 30 hours, and six in 10 spent money to develop their innovation.”
The report does not describe individual inventions, but notes most of them were household fixtures and furnishings, followed by sports equipment and products for children or education.
The least common types were medical products and computer software.
Parallel surveys in the United States, Japan and Britain have found demographic similarities with Canada’s innovators.
The range of amateur products in those three countries was broad, from a rice pressure-cooker that is used in a microwave oven, to a line of clothing that can be put on and taken off using one hand, for an amputee.
Companies that in the past have protected their products by resisting tampering will have to learn to invite potential improvements by consumers, argues the von Hippel research paper.
“Microsoft first deplored the hacking of its Kinect product by users seeking to use it in new ways,” it says of the motion-sensing device for game consoles.
“Then, within days, it reversed course and applauded those same users — recognizing the potential for mutual gains.”
Von Hippel, who founded the field 35 years ago, said in an interview that consumer innovators represent a “form of market failure.”
“They are inventing for themselves. They get a direct return. But then they have a view of others who might benefit from their innovation as an externality.”
Unlike consumer-products companies, “they don’t have an inbuilt incentive” to spread the benefits, said Von Hippel.
Governments need to create regulatory environments that encourage innovations, such as allowing unlicensed users access to some radio spectrums to experiment, he said. And some web sites, such as www.thingiverse.com, can act as marketplaces for basement inventions.
But change will not come overnight as researchers are still measuring the phenomenon and its economic potential, von Hippel said.
Industry Canada has said the Ekos survey is part of a larger project to encourage product development through consumer-innovators, including “framework laws, expenditure programs and regulatory-standards systems.”
Spokesman Michel Cimpaye said in an email the department “intends to benchmark the Canadian results to similar surveys carried out in other countries.”