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As 5 am rolled around, the monster truck street cleaners did their tour on the streets of San Francisco, while hundreds of bleary-eyed inventors lined up at the Renaissance Parc 55 Hotel, some hauling exotic prototypes, portfolios, and shrouded gadgets. Earlier in the week, over 400 people waited for up to 2 days in Los Angeles. Anyone with an idea has a shot at bringing their dream to the world and winning a million dollars on ABC’s American Inventor, a new reality show from Simon Cowell and the producers of American Idol, set to air in March of 2006. MAKE magazine’s Phillip Torrone & Natalie Zee report…Dsc06385
Inventors lining up to show their ideas.

ABC’s American Inventor is a search for a product or invention. The executive producers of the show, Liz Bronstein and Daniel Soiseth, say “We’re hoping to attract people who would never consider being on a reality show or competition. This isn’t about dating, finding a husband, or eating a bug. We want your vision and your passion.”

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Producers Liz Bronstein and Daniel Soiseth.

The producers are visiting 7 cities over the next 2 months (schedule). Prospective inventors can download the 36 page application, or fill it out on site. American Inventor strongly suggests that anyone interested should read the resource site before submitting their idea or coming out to the auditions.
The most frequently asked question is usually about who owns the invention if things go well or, consequently, if the show doesn’t go for an inventor’s idea. The answer is the inventor, but only up until they make the cut. From there, the 9 finalists will be awarded $50,000 to further develop their product into the retail market. If an inventor doesn’t advance, no rights are granted. Inventors who advance grant a “one-year exclusive, worldwide option for all rights in your invention to the producers & ABC. In consideration for one million dollars as an advance against royalties, the winning inventor will grant to Producer an exclusive, worldwide perpetual license (with possible right of reversion in the event the invention is not exploited by Producer or its designee after a period of five years) of all rights in the winning invention.”

The inventors waiting in line were as diverse as their inventions, from construction workers to accountants. The crowd, unlike the youthful American Idol try outs, have a more diversy range of participants all the way from 7 to 80 years old.

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Kid inventor.

Some of the ideas came from kid inventors with their parents prompting them to show what they made, from a new board game to an aerodynamic car ornament. A farmer from Oregon who invented an inflatable bra was inspired to design the product by his 3 daughters. One woman spent over $350,000 developing a special diaper bag. An elderly man is working on an odor-eliminating toilet seat.
The producers of the show said that out of the 400 in LA, they’ll call back around 100. The team of judges are patent lawyers, TV executives, and CEO/author Pamela Riddle, who also wrote Inventing for Dummies. Pamela commented on the large number of inventors who unfortunately spend a lot of money and time working with the infomercial “invention” companies who advertise on television with a 1-800 number late at night. “Every idea is good to them, and it can cost up to $11,000 to be listed in their database. I’ve never known any inventor in my 20 years in the business who got their product to market with any of these companies,” says Pamela.

With reality TV being a main source of entertainment for many TV viewers, making inventors the next hero could be the way to generate more excitement on making things again. The American dream of inventing is happening, and it will be televised. In March, viewers will vote, just as they did for their favorite singers with American Idol, on what new product will come to market, as well as which inventor will win a million dollars. Could this show bring in a new era of invention and makers?

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Stephen J. Hillenbrand, also known as “Mr. Lint.”

Stephen J. Hillenbrand, dressed in an American flag T-shirt, seems to think so. He calls himself “Mr. Lint” and he invented a 2-in-1 lint brush to clean out dryers. Stephen says, “I’m Mr. Lint. You’ll see me on Letterman soon, and when I win, I’m not going to have my invention made in China like everything else–it will be made in the USA.”
More information about American Inventor can be found here.

– Phillip Torrone & Natalie Zee.