Like many inventors, Bob Nepper, 82, is a compulsive improver. Nepper, an electrical engineer who lives in North St. Paul, Minn., has pet projects that have included a self-guided lawn mower and an outside faucet that can run hot and cold. His basement is stocked with tools like a lathe and a milling machine to craft his ideas.
But Nepper, who retired from 3M Co. decades ago, is most obsessed with building a low-cost way to purify water in the world’s poorest countries.
“I’ve had sympathy for having a lack of clean water,” said Nepper, who grew up on a farm. “There is such a need for it.”
With that memory for inspiration, Nepper gets together with Bill Stevenson, a fellow humanitarian inventor and retired 3M engineer, a few times a week to find new ways to purify water. One includes a solar-powered pasteurizer that missionary groups took to Haiti. Another is a device that indicates water is hot enough to be pasteurized, and it can be used with a solar oven.
Whether as volunteers or for profit, older inventors like Nepper are riding a rising tide of American innovation. They are teaming up, joining inventors clubs and getting their products into the marketplace. And older inventors bring valuable skills to their work, many experts say, like worldly wisdom and problem-solving abilities that can give them an advantage over younger inventors.
“There’s a boom in inventions by people over 50,” said John Calvert, head of the United Inventors Association.
More than 60 percent of the association’s members are older, he added, so they also have more time for inventing.
Besides clubs, more innovation-friendly spaces are also popping up to help. Maker spaces, where people build things or even brainstorm for ideas, welcome older inventors. And startups like Quirky, which helps inventors commercialize their work, has developed more than 400 products, including ones by older inventors.
“Today’s 50-plus crowd is more educated, active and mobile,” said Louis J. Foreman, chief executive of Edison Nation, which helps independent inventors get their ideas licensed and into the marketplace. “They’re coming up with solutions” to problems “that face people every day.”
One example, he said, is a doctor who came up with a knee brace for overuse injuries, which was later licensed.
An innovation-hungry marketplace is driving the need for more inventors — especially as baby boomers hunt for products that can help as they age.
Josh Scharf, 62, creates smart- living products for baby boomers. Scharf, an industrial designer, now has his own company after being a consultant for years. One of Scharf’s patented products is called PathLights, an automatic light system for stairs and hallways that helps people see better at night.
“Good ideas are ageless,” said Scharf of New Jersey. “But I also know manufacturing, and how to get things done.”
Expansive knowledge of the invention process is not a necessity. A bubbling imagination is all you need, said Warren Tuttle, president of the board of the United Inventors Association.
“Some inventors drop out of high school,” he said, “and some are Ph.Ds.”
Women, he added, are incredibly creative because they see the benefit of a product and then work backward to make it.
Older inventors can better focus on a project, though, Tuttle said.
Dr. Gary Small, professor of psychiatry and director of the UCLA Longevity Center, agreed that aging has its advantages.
“Everyone thinks that aging is a negative process,” he said. “But that’s not necessarily the case. An aging brain can see patterns better.”
The mental stimulation that goes with inventing strengthens the brain, Small said. Short-term memory does decline, he said, but people become more empathetic as they get older.
“And this is an essential ingredient in creating products for others,” he added, “so you can see what an audience needs.”
Lifelong learning also lowers the risk for dementia, Small said. To stimulate creative juices that can lead to inventions, he advises scheduling creative time or trying new things.
“People who are great inventors observe the world and take it in,” he said.
For example, James E. West, 84, obtained 11 patents when he was older than 60 and is an inventor of the electret microphone, a microphone that uses a permanently charged material to eliminate the need for a power supply.
“Anyone can be equally inventive at 75 as at 40,” said West, who is in the National Inventors Hall of Fame. “It’s having the time to bring ideas to fruition.”
Inventing, West added, is a natural function of the mind that anyone can do.
“And it improves the quality of life for people,” he said. “Bringing something new into the world is exciting and extremely rewarding.”
But inventing does not guarantee a golden payday. Only 2 percent to 3 percent of all inventors make any money from their inventions, experts said.
One big reason, they said, is that there are many real-world issues to solve first.
Creating a prototype can cost thousands of dollars and take several months. And the patent approval process can take years, said Thomas W. Galvani, a patent lawyer in Phoenix. It can cost $5,000 to $15,000, and even then a patent may be denied.
Nepper, for example, has no patents in his name because it’s too expensive. And he acknowledges that getting a product to market is difficult.
“Yet filing a patent on your own can be a fatal mistake,” Galvani said, “since there are a number of technical requirements.”
Spending lots of time on product development can send people over the bankruptcy cliff, said Tuttle.
“They may spend too much time on prototypes,” he said. “Or they may make thousands of products that can’t be sold.”
Tuttle lost nearly $100,000 and two years of his life creating an automatic pot-stirring device called StirChef that did not sell well.
“I put my family at risk and nearly lost everything,” he said.
Tuttle’s advice: Start small and take the inventing process one step at a time.
Some inventors, awash with inventions with no home, turn to intermediaries like Edison Nation. Their profits may be much slimmer, though.
Edison Nation inventors who get their products licensed reap 50 percent of the licensing fees. However, there are many steps in the process. The product is reviewed by a team and then presented to Edison Nation’s large stable of part-ners.
If one says yes, Edison Nation acquires, licenses and usually obtains the patents for the product. Submitting ideas is relatively inexpensive.
Edison Nation charges $25 to evaluate a product, while Quirky takes free submis- sions.