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Inventor's conference brings together unique collection of dreamers

WASHINGTON—Among 250 striving inventors at a recent convention, Tom Cruise was a star, even though he's never made a movie.

Only a year ago, Cruise was another rookie inventor, attending his first Independent Inventor's Conference. This year, he's back as a popular attraction.

A large luggage company has licensed his first invention, a suitcase-mounted cup holder that remains upright and stable, even while the luggage rolls. It's set for commercial release next year.

"When people hear my success story, they love it. You saw me getting mobbed over there," Cruise said, wearing a red power tie and rimless glasses. He couldn't walk 10 feet without someone asking for his card or a dinner appointment. He said yes to everybody.

Cruise, the president and founder of Win-Win Enterprises in Bettendorf, Iowa, knows that being an independent inventor isn't easy. Most patents—about 95 percent—don't make any money, and large corporations got 88 percent of new patents in 2004.

Cruise, age 40, beat the odds.

He said he'd viewed more than 3,000 patents online to make sure his idea was really new and had read 17 books on patent law so he could file an application himself.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office sponsors an annual two-day conference—this year Aug. 12 and 13 in Alexandria, Va., a suburb of Washington—to provide hopeful inventors with a chance to learn about the patent process and to network with those who've made it big.

Many of the attendees are like Nathan Coryell, of Woodbridge, Va., who works three jobs but still found time to invent 20 toys and workout machines that he wants to patent. The hopeful attendees follow independent inventors who've changed our world by creating airplanes (the Wright brothers), telephones (Alexander Graham Bell) and supermarkets (Clarence Saunders).

"I'm awestruck by these folks. They seem like they're regular, ordinary people, but each one has the potential to be in the National Inventors Hall of Fame," said John Dudas, the director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

For Cruise, "it was like a breath of fresh, new life to invent," he said. "It was like being reborn."

Cruise quit his job as vice president of sales at a software company to exercise his creative side. There wasn't anything wrong with his old job, he said. "I've loved every job I had. There wasn't anything missing from it other than my burning desire to create new things."

His wife, Stacy, told him he had one year to make money at his risky new profession.

"I knew I married an interesting guy," she said. His passion for wanting to invent persuaded her to support his career change. "It just was the right fit for him."

He beat her deadline "with two weeks to spare," he said.

Cruise realized how inconvenient holding his soda, papers and luggage was while sitting in an airport and thinking about inventing a medical device. (He won't say exactly what; as a rule, inventors are secretive about their plans. He also asked that the name of the luggage company that licensed his cup holder not be published, citing competitive reasons.)

"I needed this (cup holder) and it didn't exist, so I invented it," he said.

He started building prototypes out of "hot glue, pins and staples, basically." It took him about 50 prototypes to perfect the design. He sold his 2000 Harley-Davidson Electra Glide and custom 1990 Harley Sportster motorcycles to help pay the bills for his wife and three children.

He filed his patent last November, then hit a big snag: getting someone to buy his invention. He had no luck calling major luggage companies.

"Basically you get shut down at the front door. They say, `I want to be honest with you: It's on the bottom of our priority list,'" Cruise said.

So, "I went in the back door." He went to a trade show and caught a lucky break. "It was very serendipitous that the president (of the luggage company) happened to be there," Cruise said.

The president told him it would be to his advantage if he didn't show his product to anyone else that day.

Cruise and his wife were elated. "It's more than exciting now. It's fulfilling. Mainly, it's thrilling," Stacy said.

Now he's working on patenting and marketing some of his other inventions; he said he had 36 under development.

"The up-front money isn't nearly as much" as what he earned from his previous job, Cruise said, but he made enough to buy a replacement Harley.

He dreams of making enough to start a nonprofit advice center for inventors. Overpriced invention-promoting companies that file shoddy patent applications sometimes rip off rookies.

"There's just so many great ideas," Cruise said, but too many people get discouraged and "take that idea right to the coffin."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): INVENTORS

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