68 patents issued in Hawai'i last year
By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Sean Hao
Adult diapers with hip pads to protect the wearer in a fall and a roach trap for cars were two of the 68 ideas patented by Hawai'i inventors last year.
Ranging from the odd to the highly technical, the patents represent some of the creativity of Hawai'i residents.
Often the need to adapt to life in Hawai'i was a clear motivation for the inventors, including those who came up with new surfboard and screen-door designs and a roach trap that fits in a vehicle's cup holder.
Other inventions attempted to fill more universal needs. That's the case with an adult disposable diaper with hip pads patented by a Honolulu inventor, along with separate patents covering a new type of diaper bag.
Patents, which cost thousands of dollars to obtain, were created to protect the right of inventors to profit from their ideas.
Unfortunately for inventors, the odds of striking gold with a patent are long. That's because once a discovery is made, there's often still the task of finding partners to raise money, market and distribute a particular product or innovation.
"The general rule of thumb is only 3 percent of patents actually recoup the cost of obtaining them," said George Darby, owner of Paradise Patent Services in Honolulu.
However, not all inventors are necessarily interested in making money. Some are interested in the prestige of owning a patent, Darby said.
"There are clearly vanity patents," he said. "People obtain a patent because they want to be able to say they're a patentee."
Patent activity can also be a barometer for an area's ability to innovate. While local inventors patented numerous creative ideas in 2005, it wasn't their most prolific year. The 68 patents issued to Hawai'i inventors last year were the fewest since 1987, according to U.S. Patent and Trademark Office data.
Hawai'i typically ranks near the bottom among the 50 states in patents issued per 1 million people. The relative lack of patents may be a result of a tourism/agriculture-based economy, which only recently has begun to diversify into more innovative fields such as biotech, information technology and telecommunications.
Among Hawai'i's new breed of businesses is Kapolei-based Hoku Scientific Inc. Last year, Hoku received just its second patent covering technology related to its fuel-cell membranes. Hoku's membrane is used in fuel cells that produce energy for homes. A fuel cell operates like a battery, but does not run down or require recharging. It produces energy in the form of electricity and heat as long as fuel such as hydrogen is supplied.
Karl Taft, chief technology officer for Hoku, said patents help defend the company against competitors.
"It's a critical part of our business," he said. "The only thing keeping others from doing what we do is patents."
Discoveries weren't limited to Hawai'i's new industries. Last year James McCully, owner of Mauna Kea Orchids in Hilo, patented a new variety of orchid called Oncidium Sweet Ears "The Orchid Works." The new orchid is characterized by canary-yellow and deep-chocolate coloring, with larger-than-usual flower segments.
McCully estimates that he's already recouped the $3,500 cost of patenting his orchid.
A major concern for Hawai'i's flower growers is competition from imports from Asian countries with lower land and labor costs. One of the ways for local growers to compete is to develop hybrids that grow fast, flower early and last a long time, McCully said.
Patents are important because it can take five to six years to bring a new hybrid plant into production. However, it takes less than half that time for someone to copy a new hybrid, McCully said.
"Anybody can grab a plant, put it in a lab, (duplicate it) and change the name," he said. "It's about intellectual property and the value of that, if you can obtain your patent."
For Hawai'i, orchids generate $24 million a year in farm-level sales.
"It's much bigger than you think," McCully said. "It's bigger than papaya. It's bigger than coffee."
Reach Sean Hao at email@example.com.