TAMPA — Susan Van Volkenburg's young kids kept spilling their drinks. So did her friends' kids. She wondered if it wasn't so much the kids, as their cups.
"I went to Walmart to find a new cup," she said. "I looked for years."
She studied the problem. What if the cup was wider at the bottom, even grooved so it was sturdier? What if the bottom came off so you could stack it? What if ...
"It's called the Fuji Cup," Van Volkenburg said Friday, showing a reporter a prototype of her invention. "Because it's shaped like a volcano."
"A dormant volcano," said her husband, Jack, ready with a catchphrase.
The Van Volkenburgs, of Boca Raton, were among nearly 100 inventors who on Friday attended the Florida Regional Independent Inventors Conference at Embassy Suites Tampa-University of South Florida.
Officials from the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office and representatives of inventor trade groups talked about everything from changes in federal patent law to patent searching to the potential role of Florida universities.
The conference comes at a time when inventors say inexpensive technology and social media have made it easier to produce and market prototypes. The United Inventors Association says its membership has tripled to 12,000 in the last 18 months, according to a recent article in New York Times Magazine.
The American Invents Act, signed into law last year, changes the patent system from "first to invent" to "first to file," which is aimed at providing more reliability in the process. The law also reduces filing fees for small businesses and entrepreneurs.
Still, it's not an easy path for would-be inventors, many of whom are toiling away while trying to hold on to full-time jobs.
On a PowerPoint presentation, Pam Bird, consultant and founder of Innovative Product Technologies, showed an image of a man holding up a white flag under the heading "Most Small Businesses Fail."
Conference attendees also heard about the importance of trying to connect with university researchers.
The University of South Florida is a state powerhouse when it comes to producing patents and licensing income. In 2010, 67 patents were issued as a result of the work of university staff and students, said Valerie Landrio McDevitt, assistant vice-president of the university's division of patents and licensing. Licensing income was around $17.4 million.
McDevitt said inventors get about 45 percent of that licensing income.
Some inventors were reluctant to share too many details of their work, given that they had not yet received patents.
"Let's say it's for lipid disorders," said Tarpon Springs biochemist George Bobotas, who said he is working on a new drug.
The Van Volkenburgs aren't planning to retire off the Fuji cup just yet.
They showed up at Friday's conference to make connections.
"If I can just get it in front of moms," she said.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3374.