They did it their way

by Nathan Warner

Contributing writer

Great inventions have been brewing up a storm in Elk River.

Since the turn of the 21st century, inventive minds living in Elk River have filed patents for everything from catheters to light-emitting-diode (LED) communication devices.

Between 2008 and 2013, there were 306 patent applications alone, according to City-Data.com, compared to Anoka’s 136 or Rogers’ 142.

A few of the top 10 patent applicants in Elk River (ranked by number of patents applied for) applied for patents related to machining tools, architectural panels and communication devices, but the vast number are medical in nature.

"Long-time

Take Scott Brabec, for example, who’s been a resident of the Elk River area since 1981.  He’s had 8 medical patents granted since 2001 with several more pending for approval.  His first patent, filed on January 25 of 2005 is titled, “Method for Tissue Stimulation and Fabrication of Low Polarization Implantable Stimulation Electrode” which he shares with 5 other people.  A number of his patents have been applied in medical hardware and are in use.  “Patenting ideas is a long drawn-out process,” he says, “and it is expensive.”  Brabec, however, doesn’t pay a dime – his company does.  He works for Medtronic and has worked on pacemaker electrodes for over 22 years.  Before that, he was hired by Litton Microwave straight out of college in 1979. Litton Microwave underwent significant downsizing soon after he joined when Japanese companies entered the market with lower cost microwaves.  Brabec left Litton Microwave and joined St Jude Medical in St Paul, where he worked for 10 years.  “I was their first Manufacturing Engineer,” he says, “when all they produced were mechanical heart valves.”

While he’s worked with innovative ideas all his life, he says his journey to patenting ideas was a long one. “I started out in manufacturing,” he recalls, “and there wasn’t any time to think about patents.” That all changed when he moved into more of a design role at Medtronic and began working with design engineers who frequently submitted patents. He says trying to understand the patent process the first time around is overwhelming, but once you figure it out, it becomes second nature. “You begin naturally covering every idea you come up with, and you spend time thinking about how you would protect it from other people replicating it,” he said, adding that if you work for a company, you also usually think about how to protect that company and its ideas.

Robert Griffiths of Elk River has had five patents granted for inventions he’s developed as product development manager at Firestone Metal Products.

Robert Griffiths of Elk River has had five patents granted for inventions he’s developed as product development manager at Firestone Metal Products.

Robert Griffiths, product development manager at Firestone Metal Products, agrees that protecting the idea is crucial to the invention process.

“For some companies, trade secrets make more sense than patents,” he says, “because once something is patented, it becomes public knowledge.” Griffiths, an Elk River resident, has five patents approved and in production, with over 15 patents pending. His inventions relate to commercial and architectural metal panel products. “You’ve seen our company’s work if you’ve gone to the Elk River High School or driven past the Wells Fargo bank in Elk River,” he says.

Griffiths points out that when your product is going to be widely available and easily understood, patents make a lot more sense than trade secrets. “If you’re going to have architects drawing it up and installers putting it together, you want to protect it,” he says, “so they can’t make the same thing themselves and sell it as competition.”

Sometimes, though, he says patents aren’t the right route because once published and in the public domain, they may start a competitor’s mind down different paths they hadn’t thought of before, and they may leverage something from the patent and out-do your idea.

Some of Griffiths’ patents that are in production on commercial and architectural metal panels at Firestone Metal Products around the country.

Some of Griffiths’ patents that are in production on commercial and architectural metal panels at Firestone Metal Products around the country.

This is why Coca-Cola, Google’s search methodology, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Listerine mouthwash, WD-40 and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts prefer the trade secret (proprietary) route to patents for their products.

Griffiths’ journey to patents began when he took the product development manager position at Firestone Metal Products five years ago.

“In this job, I spend a lot of time looking at competitors’ patents,” he says, “and then I look at our own products, determining what we can do that is original to out-perform the competition.”

In Griffiths’ line of work, a patent application must be completed before an invention can proceed to production, otherwise someone in the production process may be able to duplicate it without legal action.

When Griffiths has what he thinks is a patentable idea, he takes it to Firestone’s corporate attorneys, who review it. They meet with him, along with sales staff, to determine if it is worth pursuing. If the answer is “yes,” the corporate attorneys have a third-party patent attorney write up the idea and submit it to the United States Patent and Trademark Office. “Our division’s patent process isn’t as intense as I imagine a company like Medtronic’s is,” Griffiths smiles, “but then we aren’t producing artificial heart valves for a billion-dollar market.”

He’s assuming right, as Brabec says Medtronic has its own full-time patent review board. Brabec and other employees at Medtronic can submit patentable ideas to the board. The board determines if the idea is lucrative for the company or not.

Scott Brabec has produced patents for inventions related to Medtronic pacemakers, including their electrodes.

Scott Brabec has produced patents for inventions related to Medtronic pacemakers, including their electrodes.

If it is, they bring in the company’s staff patent lawyers. The lawyers spend the time to make sure no one else has applied for a patent like the one under consideration. If not, then they write up the patent application and submit it to the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

With any new idea comes research. “You may discover that your idea is already out there,” Brabec says, “or a patent exists that blocks you from doing what you’re thinking about doing.” Brabec and Griffiths agree it is important to catch that sort of thing early by doing a little of their own research before investing too much time in an idea. “It’s always been a part of invention,” Brabec adds.

Invention isn’t finished with Griffiths and Brabec. Something new and exciting is always around the corner. They aren’t alone. Whether heart valves, pacemakers, architectural panels or communication devices, inventive minds in Elk River continue to make it a place brimming with ideas — ideas that bring change beyond the borders of their town and touch the world at large.

Top patent holders in Elk River

Troy T. Tegg (37)

Mark D. Elpers (19)

Paul T. Rothstein (14)

Robert T. Griffiths (11)

Brian J. Lee (10)

Randy S. Roles (9)

Susan M. Shoemaker (9)

Timothy J. Vogt (7)

John Robert Moberg (6)

Scott J. Brabec (6)

Total of 306 patent applications in 2008–2013.

Read more: http://www.city-data.com/city/Elk-River-Minnesota.html#ixzz2IivMEQHa

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