Surfer invents solution to painful glare and protects his potentially massive market share with heavy intellectual property protection.
It is hard to imagine that surfers suffer from anything while they spend hours doing what they love most.
But the fact is, every surfer around the world is affected by severe glare caused by the sun reflecting off the sand, the water, and especially from the white foam in the break zone. This can lead to severe eye damage, skin cancer on the eye's surface and on the sensitive skin around the eye.
Says, Robert Webster, devoted Gold Coast surfer for over 20 years and inventor of an exciting solution to this problem, "the glare is so bright that it can actually be painful to open your eyes, and there have been times when my mates and I have actually been temporarily blinded."
"The crazy thing is that every time I would get out on the water, I would be reminded of this problem. But really this has existed for as long as people have been surfing, yet no one, not even the massive, multinational sunglass companies have tackled this," he adds.
One day in 1994 as he and a group of friends were walking along the beach looking for a spot to set down their gear, they began talking about how they religiously wear sunglasses on the beach, but take them off when they hit the water. According to Webster, this can actually compound the problem because eyes are relaxed through the protection sunglasses offer, and then are dramatically affected when they are taken off and the eyes are hit with sudden glare.
"Walking back to my car that day after surfing for a few hours and trying to cope with glare again, it struck me that there has got to be an answer for this. There has to be some way to solve probably the main thing which can make surfing a hassle," says Webster.
He and an employee from his surfboard manufacturing business began by identifying the main parameters for a successful eyewear solution, and trying, as Webster calls it, "to do a mind shift so that we would be open to radically different ideas."
"The basic issue is getting something to stay on your head and not get mangled when you're dumped by tons of water. After that, the eyewear can't fog up. They need to give you total peripheral vision. They should be comfortable. And because there is a certain "surfie style", they needed to look good too," says Webster.
After months of R&D, they arrived at what Webster calls a two tier approach.
"The sunglasses are based on the popular blade style with extra lens length for peripheral vision. We have also added a strap with a snap release buckle to keep them in place, plus a rubber flange which provides grip and hold across the eye area and nose bridge. The second tier is achieved with a collar which goes around the back of the neck and has two stable strips which attaches on either side of the sunglasses," says Webster.
The combination proved very successful when trialed by Webster and his employee. After making formal applications for a provisional patent and design registration, it was also trialed with other surfers. The feedback was consistently excellent.
But Webster laughs when he remembers how he and his employee trialed the new concept 'on the back beaches' to keep it underwraps.
"Because of my experience with innovative surf board manufacturing, I knew that I could affect my eligibility for patent and design registration protection if my invention became publicly known.
"Once I was ready, I chose to initiate protection with a provisional patent application with IP Australia to gain a bit more R&D time, but to still be able to refer to a formal date from which I claim ownership over my idea, called my priority date. I also added design registration applications with IP Australia for both the strap and the overall look of the sunglasses, Webster.
During the provisional patent application period of 12 months, Webster felt ready to apply for patent protection in other countries. He did this through a PCT (Patent Cooperation Treaty) application and basically nominated the main surfing countries where he aims to market his product.
When this mass application period ends, he then enters the national phase when you must make separate applications in each country and pay their fees and negotiate each different intellectual property system.
Webster's intellectual property specialist is instrumental in managing the entire domestic and overseas patent and design registration process. International intellectual property efforts can become complex and are certainly labour intensive, when really as Webster puts it, "you just want to be out surfing."
The product 's name, Ztagg is also the subject of applications to IP Australia for trade mark registration which will give Webster a nationwide monopoly in the several trade mark classes he has chosen to protect the name in, such as class 9 which includes eyewear, and class 25 for clothing, footwear and headgear.
Although his R&D and intellectual property expenses are currently exceeding sales, Webster feels this is the summer that will see his concept become a product. But there's is still hard work ahead.
"We now have to start educating surfers to wear this protective eyewear. The Australian Surf Lifesaving Foundation has endorsed Ztagg and will also begin marketing them. We are also attending the annual surf products trade show in San Diego in September. This will give us momentum into the American and European summer and hopefully this combined push will help establish this product strongly," says Webster.
This case study has been compiled by IP Australia