Of course things don't always pan out as hoped. Telemarq and its pen idea had been a long time brewing – some seven years – but Stafford-Fraser only really had the chance to dedicate himself to it in 2011, a delay that unbeknown to him opened the door to two of the world's largest computer companies and revealed just some of the barriers to entry for lone entrepreneurs embarking on hardware-based high-tech ventures.
The starting point for the Telemarq Pen was that people can chat, see and even smell across the internet, whereas something as important as writing and drawing is in Stafford-Fraser's words, very poorly served by current technology.
He wanted large numbers to have the ability to quickly scribble some words or notes on as many devices as possible – a phone, tablet, laptop, even a TV – with more accuracy and finesse than the crude finger-painting available on the iPad. The solution was a low-cost stylus capable of exceedingly high-resolution drawing.
As he describes in his blog, the core of the idea was a small inexpensive camera pointing at the screen and various cunning techniques to recognise the pixels at which it was pointing.
"I reckoned I could locate the pen on the screen at sub-pixel resolution, so it would be a very accurate drafting device, and yet could be made for a few dollars."
Following some experiments and a draft patent, Stafford-Fraser had it pretty much ready to take to investors, but another brief delay proved key. In May an Apple patent was published based on very similar ideas. Then in July a report appeared that saying that Microsoft had a prototype optical stylus.
While there's no guarantee that either Microsoft of Apple will take the stylus much further, "it's a brave man who takes on both Apple and Microsoft's lawyers," says Stafford-Fraser. "It would have been much more likely to result in ruin than riches."
So was there any disappointment? "In one sense, yes, but in another it was a relief," says the inventor. "The main reason I had abandoned the idea earlier this year was that the time needed to get funding would have exceeded the time represented by the state of my bank account!
"If you are starting a project that you know is going to need external finance, then you have a problem. Angel and VC deals typically take six to 18 months to sort out, so, unless you have another job you need to be able to survive at least that long without income – something not very many people can do.
"Furthermore, if you're going to have, say, a convincing prototype before you go out looking for funding then you need to add on however long it would take you to build your prototype. In software, that may not be too long, but hardware can be a different matter.
"If you try to skip that step and go straight to investors with just an idea, however well thought-out, you're not going to get funding on very good terms. Especially if they know that you need it badly. So there are some real barriers to getting started in certain fields.
"So, in fact, having had to abandon the project, but still being convinced it was a good idea, I was pleased to discover that (a) others thought it a good idea too and (b) if I had taken it further there might have been a rocky intellectual property road ahead. It meant I could replace my sense of disappointment with one of having made a lucky escape."
Stafford-Fraser believes the device is vitally important and with Microsoft and Apple both doing preliminary work on it we have at least one indicator that there's some kind of appetite for a similar device and he hopes they take it beyond simply filing IP.
It is also another example of a common and fascinating phenomenon of ideas and technologies emerging at the same point in time, but independently of each other (as discussed by Steven Johnson).
"If you look at the history of almost every successful invention, there's a fascinating story behind it, and it's very common for multiple people to come up with the same idea at the same time.
"It's not well known, for example, that a chap named Elisha Gray filed a patent for the telephone on exactly the same day as Alexander Graham Bell, and it was arguably a better technology, but who knows Gray's name now? Even more surprising is the fact that, as they filed their patents, the German inventor Johann Philipp Reis was already commercially marketing the seventh version of his telephone in Europe.
"The lesson, however, is that the pioneering lone inventor, however romantic a figure, is seldom alone in his ideas, and seldom ends up reaping the rewards."
So what next any more ideas coming through? "Yes, lots of them. But, of course, I can't tell you about them until I've filed the patents..."
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