Innovation in the bag: Bob DeMatteis
Whether you know it or not, you’re connected to Bob DeMatteis. This leading packaging systems innovator holds the patent and license on the self-opening plastic bags used in supermarkets and national giants like Wal-Mart, Sears, and Kroger. Nearly everyone has likely used his product.
We spoke with DeMatteis about inventing, the reasons for his success, and the advice he has for inventors looking to license their technology.
When inventing, look to increase productivity
Before I developed the self-opening plastic bag, paper bags were the standard because they were very easy to use and could carry a lot. I was in the plastics packaging industry at the time, and I knew that plastic bags were more cost effective than paper. But there were issues with plastic: at that point plastic bags came in boxes, and you’d have to reach into the box to pull out a bag—sometimes you’d pull out three or four because they would stick together—and then you’d have to stick your finger inside the bag and swab it around to open it up, and only then start loading it. It was very inefficient, very unproductive. I knew that if plastic bags weren’t made easier to use, they would never replace paper.
I got to thinking about it, and one day when I was driving down the highway it struck me: a self-opening bag. You mount the bags on a hook and swipe your finger across the bag and it automatically opens. It’s faster and cheaper than paper—more efficient, more productive. That’s why plastic has replaced paper, by and large, as the bag of choice.
Make it “people friendly”
A lot of innovations are more pure science than anything else: new plastics, new medical breakthroughs, etc. Those are great and needed, but they aren’t products in themselves. They only give you the opportunity to use them in new products. For instance, one of my new products is a plastic valve bag for the concrete industry. We needed a very strong plastic for this application, and we found out that Exxon had developed a durable resin that was perfect for us. Exxon had spent $800 million developing it, but essentially had no market for it. When they found out about our plastic cement bags they were very, very interested in helping us out.
But the key thing is that there were already a lot of plastic bag systems being used in the concrete industry, and many of them tried to emulate paper, which made them expensive to use. And, more importantly, many of the employees in the actual concrete filling plants had difficulty using the bags. So using Exxon’s resin we designed a bag that’s very easy for employees to use, and we’re now licensing the technology all across North America. And that’s what I mean by “people friendly”: develop the technology with the user in mind; make it simple, easy, intuitive.
Licensing is a team effort
The teamwork concept is paramount in licensing. If an invention is going to be licensed successfully, it has to be a team effort. It has to be manufactured cost effectively, it has to have the “Wow” factor, it has to be protected with patents, and most importantly, it has to be marketed. Nothing happens until your invention gets sold.
You have four partners on your team: the inventor, the lawyer, the manufacturing partner, and the marketing expert. The most important member of the team is your marketing expert. And almost invariably your marketing expert is your licensee. You really want your licensee to embrace your product. As long as that licensee embraces your invention, you know that you’ve got something—that you’re a team.
Two things to look for in licensees
The first thing you look for in a licensee is whether or not the company is established in the field of your invention. They have to have experience. They have to be at a point where they can start marketing your innovation right away.
The second thing to look at is the quality of product the company puts out. Your licensee has to be a company that sells and markets the same level of quality that you’re offering. In other words, if your licensee makes Timex watches, and your invention is a Rolex, they won’t understand how to reap benefit from the value you add. And most innovations are added quality, added value, making something more workable. That’s the essence of innovation—these small layers of improvements. Make sure your licensee can appreciate that.
Knowing when your invention is licensable
To me, it comes down to what I call the Four Magic Words. You know you’ve got something special when your licensee tells you, “I can sell it.”