When an inventor has a brainstorm, the Wisconsin Innovation Service Center is ready to help.
“We get the tinkerers working in their basements or garages. We get engineers with extensive experience and capabilities who may have access to laboratories. We get the scientists. We get applications from federal labs,” said Ronald “Bud” Gayhart, director of the center.
All inventors are welcome at the center, which will help them explore patent issues, evaluate the marketplace and craft an innovative idea into an entrepreneurial success.
The Wisconsin Innovation Service Center is one of the business outreach centers of the College of Business and Economics at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, which prides itself on being a resource for economic development.
WISC fosters innovation and entrepreneurial leadership by helping inventors bridge the gap between a bright idea and marketplace realities. Students play key roles as the center serves clients worldwide; one report recently went to a client in Austria, who heard about WISC through word of mouth.
“We do a lot of work in new product assessment, targeted to the inventor,” Gayhart said. “We encourage the inventor to come to us early with the idea.”
WISC offers two key assessments. First, it will research patents, making sure an idea is unique and patentable. That not only avoids patent infringement problems, but also helps the inventor understand the value of his product.
Second, WISC will gather impartial market information. What competitors are out there? What’s the pricing structure? Is the market growing, flat or declining? How many consumers will care?
“Understanding what the market opportunity looks like is extremely important,” Gayhart said.
The center maintains a database of about 1,200 consultants who are experts in a vast array of industries, a selection so extensive that WISC has never had an assessment request it couldn’t fill, Gayhart said.
Industry experts often recommend design modifications to improve the use or cost of a product or help it move more quickly to the market.
Another assurance for inventors: “All of our work is bound by confidentiality agreements,” Gayhart said. “All employees sign them, including students. Confidentiality is stressed at all times within the office.”
Sometimes WISC delivers bad news, but it’s important for an inventor to hear it early. “It may help you understand this is not where you want to be going,” Gayhart said.
WISC also offers diversification assessments, a service born in 2007 when an economic development agency in Michigan sought help for suppliers in the Detroit area devastated by the decline of the auto industry.
In those companies and others, WISC often finds business people focused on serving one or two big customers and not seeking other markets. If the big customer suddenly disappears, the crisis could destroy the business.
“Typically what we find is many of these businesses are extremely good at reacting, but they are not proactive when it comes to seeking new sales opportunities,’’ Gayhart said.
WISC analyzes the company, its capabilities, current markets, products, quality standards, materials and everything else it can find to understand its business from a market perspective.
Then the center looks at 15 industry clusters, contacts major manufacturers and looks for niche sectors and emerging hot spots, “what’s starting to bubble right now,” Gayhart said. Even declining sectors offer opportunities.
WISC provides each business with a list of potential new customers, complete with contact information. It’s up to the business to take action – and they do.
All 94 Michigan companies that were assessed have landed contracts in new industry sectors, Gayhart said, and about 60 percent won multiple new contracts.
WISC is doing the same thing closer to home under the $5.9 million federal State of Ingenuity grant for economic development in four counties in Wisconsin and two in Illinois. More than 10 studies have been delivered in Rock County, and about 10 more are under way in other counties, with a goal of 33 studies in three years.
“This is basically providing them with strategic planning,’’ Gayhart said.
WISC also hosts a yearly gathering of inventors and entrepreneurs at the Ideas to Profits Conference. (See http://www.ideas2profits.org for details.) Topics include business innovation, invention development and funding solutions. A trade show was added last year.
“It’s one of those connecting points, one of those lightning rods, that allows groups to get together and kind of cross-pollinate,” Gayhart said. “That’s invaluable.”