As Greg Ely painted ceiling after ceiling at an apartment complex one day in 2009, he craned his neck for hours. It ached for weeks.
So back at home, he drew up plans for a contraption that would let him strap a headrest to his back.
He'd eventually pay a manufacturer to make a prototype, patent the design and pitch the idea anywhere he could think of — at trade shows, at meetings of inventors, on the back of his minivan. He figures it has cost him upward of $35,000 to get this far, financed by savings and money he borrowed from his mother.
Ely is still waiting for his big break. No one is selling a product like his on the market, he says, and he hopes an interested investor or manufacturer could help him find buyers.
"I'm up on top of the hurdle. I just need that little boost to get over it," Ely said. "Once I'm over it, I'm done. I'm set."
On the one hand, Ely is in uncommon company. Few individual inventors manage to secure a patent, pushed away by the steep price and strict standards. Of the 144,621 patents Americans were awarded for inventions in 2014, just 19,377 went to individuals, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
But in another sense, Ely is hardly an anomaly in Tampa Bay and Florida, said Wayne Rasanen, president of the Tampa Bay Inventors Council. When his group meets every other week, somewhere between 20 and 40 people show up.
Like Ely, most of them are tinkerers with a day job and a dream that their ideas will lead them to riches.
But getting there is hard, Rasanen cautions. It can be costly and time-intensive and still up to the whims of timing and luck.
"We all want to make it rich and make it big one day and retire on our ideas," Rasanen said. "You can be pretty darn good and not make it."
At 53, Ely hopes his product, the Ultimate Neck and Back Support System, is his ticket to retirement.
He began a career of painting and construction work when he was 14, back home in Conneaut, Ohio. He finally gave up the trade about a year and a half ago, when his back pain became too much to bear. His back still bothers him in his job as a chauffeur, so he put an inversion table in his living room and hangs upside down often to ease the pain.
"My body's worn out, man," he said.
He's had other ventures in the past — a stretch as a one-man limo service and a brief run as a pizzeria owner — but the Great Recession sapped business, he says, and so his back support device is the focus of his entrepreneurial ambition. Signs of it dot his Pinellas Park home.
His first prototype hangs on the wall in the kitchen, a foam headrest connected to a lifting belt by an adjustable aluminum tube. He has a copy of the patent he earned in May 2014 at the ready, and his Web address is written on the back of the Kia minivan in his driveway.
Ely says he has sold only about 10 of his headrests for $199 apiece, mostly to family and friends, highlighting the difficulty of bringing an idea to fruition and then to market. Even after the difficult, yearslong process of getting a patent and having a product manufactured, it's no sure bet that inventors will find customers on the other side, that the painters and construction workers and cleaners he hopes will buy his invention will come across it — or that they'll pay up.
Ely says he would like to find investors who could help him find an audience or a medical manufacturer who could help him take it to market, but he's not sure where to look.
"I don't even know how to contact people like that," Ely said. "I am just a construction worker — y'know what I'm saying? — that went chauffeuring because I couldn't do the work anymore."
Even so, Ely is holding out hope. He's sure that the Ultimate Neck and Back Support System will break through, that those customers will come and that his retirement will follow behind.
"I know what this thing is going to do," Ely said. "It's just, when is it going to do it?"
Ingenuity is a series of occasional features about local people with creative ideas. If you or someone you know could be a future subject for this feature, contact business reporter Thad Moore at [email protected] Follow @thadmoore.