Tom Lawton • British Inventor

On the Cusp

Last month I flew to Chicago to present a talk about my story at the inimitable Cusp Conference at the museum of contemporary art, whose theme each year is the design of everything.

To say it was an awesome experience is an understatement. It was absolutely awesome and a thrill to be part of not least because I have never visited Chicago before.

My talk hasn’t gone live yet but here is a stream of visual goodness illustrated by the talented Julia Kuo. I’ll post the talk up as soon as I can. I was the first time I think I have ever really  (genuinely) enjoyed public speaking – in part because I got to talk about what I love (my life) and also because the organisers were so bloody nice.

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Ten minute chat on local BBC Radio

BBC Wiltshire Radio were kind enough to chat to me about my life inventing stuff. Here’s the interview from Graeme Seaman’s afternoon show on Friday.

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Through the eyes of a child

Not everyone can take the summer off to build a dreamboat with their kids (obviously!). Last summer was a TOTAL departure from the challenges and reality of my regular work (I labour to take my product ideas to market, focusing on one at a time), though it would be lovely to have the resource to be so experimental in every day life, but I tend to work on just a few ideas over many years, but you certainly don’t need a lot of resource to be imaginative. I had to plan the time off from work really carefully and we had a lot of help from Channel 4 and the production company Twenty Twenty – but that doesn’t mean you can’t dream big with your kids and inspire each other to think in magical ways. So, rather than selling the car to fund a hairbrained scheme to turn the shed into a great glass elevator why don’t you try painting a magical vision of what you would do together if you could do anything and there were no rules.

The first thing Barney & I did when dreaming up the boat was to paint a picture. The way children’s imagination’s spill onto canvas through paint is a joyful art in itself, to accompany them in bringing such a vision to life is equally rewarding. So make no apologies, be as bold as you can be and dream up a futuristic fantasy – be it an air ship, a holiday house on the moon or a flying cat car – I don’t know, just paint it. And if you do, I really recommend you to find a nice canvas to paint it on (you can pick them up at your local art supply shop from about a tenner). We use acrylic paints and mix of brush sizes. You never know, it could be a future master piece or, as it stands on the wall staring at you for years to come, be the blueprint for a new adventure.

It seems that we’ve already inspired a few others. The sketch below is by young Eric (7) who watched the show. Now imagine that bought to life in colour. It doesn’t have to be real to be amazing. I’ll gladly host a gallery if anyone else wants to send their pictures.

Other than this, when people ask me how I’m entertaining Barney this summer I say I’m not; partly because he just got a big trampoline for his birthday and is pretty occupied with that & also, part of the reason I became an inventor was because I learned how to entertain myself at home through long and boring school holidays. Kids shouldn’t need constant distraction & entertainment – being bored is an important part of growing up – why else did we create games like Football, Monopoly, Tennis, Sack Races – these are all inventions, don’t just think about thing making – think about inventing a game.  If Barney wants to do something he can use my tools (well, the blunt ones) and I’ve given him a pile of wood to play with – he’s got to find his own passions – but of course, I’m always there to help – and pull out the splinters.

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Tom’s Fantastic Floating Home

Last summer I took a few months out of my regular work to build a Fantastic Floating Home for Channel 4 Factual Entertainment. The result is played out in a 3 x 60 minute TV series that airs at 7pm on Sunday 27th July on Channel 4. ‘Tom’s Fantastic Floating Home‘ is my first TV commission and while I’ve never really striven to be on the telly it’s amazing what can happen in life when you say YES to things that normally you wouldn’t dream of. All I want is to inspire people to dare to dream, to live a colourful, unconventional life that’s fuelled by imagination – the premise of the show is that I look at the world through the eyes of my six year old Barney (who is the show’s real star) and together we put our own inventive twist on life. We’re only here once and life really is what you make it. So I am thankful to myself for having had the balls to actually do it (I deliberated so much about this) and allow a film crew to follow me for five months through triumph & failure. Whatever comes next for me I don’t know but all I hope is that if you watch it, you’ll see it for all its positivity & I hope it inspires you. It’s more fun to create than to consume. All power to you & your glorious imagination!

I have loads of photos & bubbles of the whole experiment so follow me on twitter using the hashtag #floatinghome

We also made 4 short films about inventing stuff to accompany the show. These can be found on C4′s official web page for the show

It’s nice to have made it into the local paper too – you can read the full article in the Western Daily Press online here

I did a Q & A with Develop 3D Magazine also

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Are your designs safe?

I recently contributed to a feature in Develop 3D magazine about protecting your designs. I have included the full words I wrote below.

I’ve never held much faith in the power of registered designs to protect anything other than bold, visual designs – Rob Law’s situation with Trunki only reinforces this.  Just by completing the application process it’s evident that they are too lightweight to capture any true characteristics of a fully realised ‘original’ product design, which of course is likely to take a 3D form & be made up of a clever combination of many design considerations that go way beyond just its appearance.

But neither do I have any love for the patent system, for its prohibitive costs & drawn out process seem to favour only those businesses who have the resource to fund &, as importantly, then enforce their rights. Very often also, it’s possible to conceive a design that’s innovative & original but is not necessarily patentable.

I think in most cases innovative product designs sit between these two places.

What adds to the frustration is that most investor parties regard a patented product or technology as being imperative to a business case. But the time it takes between a patent application & worldwide grant can be years – technology, markets, trends all change at lighting pace, which can make patents redundant by the time they are granted. Good for a business case, but in reality, often a pointless waste of money!

I have to make a strategic decision about IP that exposes me to incredible risk (I do accept that comes with the territory) – but let’s say, I have a clever design, no one has done it, but I haven’t proven the market – so it’s not yet possible to build a business case. Do I start to patent it now only to face escalating costs that start in 18 months? Or do I take a flyer and attempt to get lightweight protection via a registered design, which will be published in the public domain almost immediately, allowing competitors to gain sight of what I am doing, well before I am able to manufacture & sell the product and then not really mean anything when challenged by a copycat? Or do I do neither & focus on the quickest & best route to market? Or all the above? Truth is every case is different as is every design but my decision always comes down to one of cost. This means typically I cannot afford to take a corporate approach and protect all of my work. Unlike other creative industries of course, product inventors, have to apply & pay for the right to own their work & they stand alone if they are challenged.

At the start of my career I was advised that my product’s trade name would be my most valuable asset. It’s true, trademarks are easier to protect & enforce, but it’s impossible to create a brand without products to build it around.

So, for fear of just continuing an age old rhetoric, the whole system appears old fashioned and stacked in favour of bigger business, having a stifling effect on SME innovators like myself.

Recently I have experienced a new phenomenon also, first to Kickstarter. While this means nothing in the true eyes of the law I have had patent infringing products appear on Kickstarter, who don’t get involved in such disputes, allowing a third party to gain public notoriety & pre-orders for their product before I have had a chance to build my own story. This becomes an excruciatingly painful especially as they can benefit from the gains of appearing ‘first in market’.

So I think we need a new middle ground – something deeper than a registered design that perhaps can be extended into something like a patent, as a product evolves & business grows. Something that acknowledges a designer’s original work beyond its exterior form. Something that a final year student, SME or independent inventor could actually afford to protect & maintain – in the UK at least, where the design was conceived. When I left university I was paying a patent attorney ten times more per hour than what I could earn in an hour. I don’t know how I even started? Oh, I do, I got further into debt.

Until then I will keep date stamping my sketch books, registering a few designs & reluctantly near-bankrupting myself with patents and mainly keeping secret most of the clever designs & ideas I have while fighting to actually survive, let alone thrive in business.

I feel for Rob. I have been ripped off in every way possible. It’s hard enough getting a product to market yet alone having to fight copycats to keep your market space, but at least he has got this far & is thriving. Thinking ahead of the rest & being original is the best strategy there is & at the end of the day we all have competition to keep us on our toes. That’s never a bad thing.

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At last I’m off the naughty list

I’ve had a bit of good luck. In the past few months I have been honored by being grouped with some amazing companies and individuals in a couple of exclusive lists. Last summer T3 Magazine put BubblePix at #13 in their list of Top British Tech Companies (ahead of, ahem, Dyson & Aston Martin) and then I made made Shortlist’s Brit List of 50 folk that are doing something cool, new & relevant. I didn’t get around to mentioning these previously but the latest hall of fame I have entered is pretty close to home & something I am really proud of – and bless them, they made me a rocker! ‘Rock The Cotswolds‘  is a great initiative set up by Oli from Neon Play & supported by Cotswold Life and whole host of other great local organisations.

It’s easy for folk to have a perception of the Costwolds (and surrounding countryside shires – I’m a Somerset boy and a Wiltshire lad) as being, well, beautiful, but nothing much more than quaint, rural, quiet and er, that’s it. As the world races on to become a more urbanised place there’s a counter movement of people using advantages of technology to be as creative & productive but… not in the city! As a kid I learned that living in the sticks really meant that life was what you made it… without distraction but with plenty of freedom and as a base to adventure out in to the wider world I choose to make it here (with London 75 mins by train & Bristol 30 mins in the car I can hardly say I’m remote but we are worlds apart – and that’s what I love). Thankfully I’m not here on my own and that’s what Rock The Cotswolds celebrates – there are a host of brilliant, creative, innovative, progressive, exciting people doing all sorts of amazing things all over these dry stone walled valleys. So don’t you go thinking we’re like simple or sumit.

Thanks to Oli for taking this initiative & creating the opportunity for us to recognise what a buzz we have going on.

I can already think of dozens of people who should also be honored with the above, but that’s the beauty of this, there’ll be a next year and a one after that… I am already nominating…

You don’t get much more quintessentially Cotswold than my beloved Castle Combe. Bubble selfie above shot with a BubblePod, invented in Malmesbury, funded globally.

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Making ideas happen at Develop 3D Live

After being a cover star for the magazine with BubbleScope, Al Dean at Develop 3D kindly asked me to do a talk at their live event. The theme I chose was making ideas happen. I loved it.

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Handlebars that honk!

Simple ideas are so often the best. A friend & I created Honkies,  available from Microscooters in the spring of 2014.

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I’m Tom Lawton. I’m a designer & inventor based in the beautiful West Country. I love ideas and I love making them happen. This is my blog where you’ll find a pretty up to date account of my projects, my adventures and other musings.