In part four of a series celebrating entrepreneurial success, Diana Clement talks to some No 8 wire inventors who have been there.
In a living room near you someone is dreaming of inventing.
Few of those inventions will see the light of day - or someone else will get there first. But a handful of Kiwis each year come up with a new invention destined for commercial success - just as the New Zealand-invented electric fence or the mountain buggy found world-wide fame.
Typical inventions are solutions to problems that have irked someone, somewhere. Throughout history one man's problem has been another man's solution. And that's no different these days.
Some inventions are so logical you'd wonder why you didn't think of it yourself. One invention, the squeeze jam, an upside down squeezy bottle which banishes butter from the jam forever, came about thanks to the inventor's frustration at butter being left in the jam jar by less-than-careful knife users.
On the other hand, there are inventions that are just plain daft, such as the combined plow and gun or the battery powered ear dryer. The latter wasn't a commercial success, strangely enough - because not enough people suffered from wet ears to buy them.
Inventors themselves fall into three categories: backyard inventors, serial professional inventors and academics.
Ideas are the easy part, says John Poppleton, who runs KiwiIngenuity.net and is part of the Wellington Inventors Network, which meets monthly. "They are a dime a dozen," says Poppleton.
Some of the patents filed in New Zealand in 2009 include a wheelbarrow brake and a laptop card holder. Getting a provisional patent costs around $50, but many of the patents filed with the Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand will get no further.
To be a successful inventor, says Poppleton, you need sweat, networking, resources and luck. The Investors Trust has a checklist for budding inventors at its website, inventors.co.nz.
One area of invention New Zealand is good at is innovative baby products such as HeyBaby!'s hooded, footed baby-wraps. It's inventor, Robyn George-Neich, was frustrated that whenever she moved her baby to the car or buggy she'd need to unwrap the blanket to fasten the harness. So she invented an alternative.
While many inventors may have the wherewithal to either build their prototype or get it built, not all have the sales and marketing skills to get it going or even raise finance - although help can be had from government bodies, including New Zealand Trade and Enterprise and local/regional economic development agencies.
One of our more successful inventors of recent years is Grant Ryan, who dreams of the day when the words "Yiking to work" enter daily speech.
Ryan, an addicted entrepreneur with a mechanical engineering degree and PhD in ecological economics, invented the YikeBike, a revolutionary "mini-farthing" style, folding electric bike with a maximum speed of 20km an hour. It was conceived after Ryan read about the Sedgway and was curious about the hype. "From an engineering point of view I thought it was cool, but from a practicality point of view I didn't think much," says Ryan.
So he decided to set about designing the perfect commuter bike from scratch - with no preconceptions. Everything, including the size of the wheels, positioning of the handlebars and construction material, was up for consideration. The result was a large wheel at the front, injection moulded plastic, an upright position and lightweight materials.
At first glance the bike looks unnatural. That's because we presume the basic bicycle style, which is 120 years old, is "natural". But there's nothing natural about leaning forward over the handlebars.
Ryan already had other successful businesses under his belt, including GlobalBrain.net, which was sold to NBCi. That made finance and the other ropes of being a successful inventor easier.
The YikeBike was designed for overseas markets where people live in small apartments, often cluttered with bicycles, and where housing near transport hubs is at a premium.
Owning a YikeBike would allow commuters to live four times the distance they do now from those hubs without having to use public transport to get there, says Ryan. They could simply fold up their lightweight YikeBikes and take them on board a train or bus much more easily than they could a traditional folding bike.
Ryan is slightly bemused by the media hype surrounding the YikeBike, as the company has yet to sell one. Nonetheless, it made 15th place in Time magazine's 50 Best Inventions of 2009.
Many of New Zealand's best inventions have come out of universities and research centres, such as the former DSIR, now Plant & Food research.
Molecular biologist Dr Richard Espley is the face of one such "invention" although strictly speaking it's a "discovery" - the red-fleshed apple.
Red-fleshed apples occur naturally in small numbers in Kazakhstan, and a team at Plant & Food, where Espley is employed, is breeding them into a commercial variety.
The flesh looks dramatic, says Espley, but the naturally occurring Kazakh apple didn't taste good.
Another key selling point for red-fleshed apples is that they have more powerful antioxidants than traditional white-fleshed apples, and the antioxidants are found right throughout the apple and not just in the skin. The apples, as well as tasting good, need to be able to withstand long trips to Asia and Europe to export markets.
Espley and his team didn't wake up dreaming of red apples one day. Plant & Food is breeding new varieties all the time - not all of which will ultimately have the commercial potential of the red-fleshed apple.
Espley's "discovery", for which he won a McDiarmid Young Scientist of the Year award this year, was the gene that controls colour in apples. With this gene identified, other members of the team were able to speed up the breeding process of the new crossed red apple variety - discarding seedlings that don't have it.
"We have effectively sped up the breeding process by a number of years," says Espley. Even so, it will be at least five years before the new variety of apples is on our supermarket shelves - or more importantly, in the holds of ships on their way to export markets.
* The Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand's website - iponz.govt.nz/cms/patents - can be searched for patents.By Diana Clement Email Diana