Inventors beware: Take good notes

Marketplace Staff May 24, 2006


MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: An Atlanta dentist spent nearly two decades seeking a patent for an invention he was sure would be the next big thing in heart medicine. But while he was waiting, someone else came along and patented a similar product. The dentist was right — the invention has made billions of dollars. Now, he’s trying to get a piece of the market. From Georgia Public Broadcasting Emily Kopp has that story.

EMILY KOPP: A 55-year-old heart attack victim lies on the operating table. Cardiologist Mark Unterman prepares to prop open the man’s clogged artery with a tiny expandable scaffold, known as a coronary stent.

[ Cardiologist Mark Unterman in background: We just went through that blockage with the wire. And then we’re going to get ready to balloon it and then we’ll put a stent in there. ]

All in a morning’s work for Unterman. Cardiologists use about a million stents a year. They’ve made heart attacks a lot less deadly, and manufacturers very wealthy. But the man the US patent office now says invented the device hasn’t received a dime. Atlanta Dentist Henry Wall’s saga began in 1987, when he first applied for a patent.

HENRY WALL: It was an incredible experience, many stops and starts along the way. We had some real bad luck.

To say the least. Examiners spent years investigating Wall’s claims, and then apparently lost his application. Wall found it in 2002, after the patent office set up an online database. He picked up where he had left off, and was rewarded. He realized his moment had come when he visited the patent office.

HENRY WALL: The examiner came down to get us and he said, ‘I want to just meet the granddaddy of stents’ and I said, ‘I didn’t know I was the granddaddy of stents,’ and he said, ‘Oh yes, you’re famous around here.’

Wall is hoping the industry is just as friendly. His patent protects his invention for 17 years. Leading manufacturers are reluctant to discuss it. They say they’re aware of the patent, but won’t comment further. Florida entrepreneur Steve Gorlin is trying to help Wall work out a deal. He says the patent, and a Wall Street Journal story about it, have made companies rethink their right to make stents.

STEVE GORLIN: Initially when the articles appeared and the patent issued, I think it was shock and awe. No one could believe it.

Now, Gorlin says, manufacturers seem to doubt the 69-year-old inventor can ride out a long legal battle. Wall says he’ll go to court if he has to.

HENRY WALL: This is a country of free enterprise. Those who work hard enough and are successful enough and have the right product should benefit from it, as should the patients.

Wall first approached companies about making the stent well before he got the patent. He’s kept detailed notes of every contact he’s ever made with them since the 1980s. Wall says, back then, no one wanted to work with a dentist on a heart device. But he’s betting they’ll see things differently now.

In Atlanta, I’m Emily Kopp for Marketplace.

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