In helping to cope with a parent's arthritis, British inventor Mark Sheahan has come up with a revolutionary packaging concept that has won a string of awards throughout Europe and North America. Better still, it's now on the verge of making a commercial breakthrough reports Des King
Naturally enough, most people would want to help make some of the everyday things of life a little easier for a parent or a partner unfortunate enough to be manually impaired.
British inventor Mark Sheahan is not like most people. When his mother – an arthritis sufferer – complained of the difficulties involved in opening a simple tin of shoe polish, his solution was to design the prototype for what 10 often frustrating years later has evolved into the ‘simply squeeze-to-open’ closure.
It’s a deceptively basic but ingenious piece of plastics technology that is now set to re-mould packaging applications for a whole range of products as diverse as bathroom beads and pipe tobacco.
In essence, Mark’s squeeze-to-open closure consists of an injection-moulded curved wall plastics lid that fits securely on top of a container; and easily removed by applying a gentle pressure well within the grasp of all but the wholly disabled.
Re-closure is achieved by lightly pressing the cap back onto the pack. A multi-purpose inner-symmetrical ramp system guides the components together to form a perfect seal.
“This opening action will work up to the normal adult hand and down to a lipstick size,” says Mark Sheahan. “Apart from its manageability, this must also be one of the cheapest packs to produce because the user doesn’t have to worry about threads any more.”
The road to market
In the storybook tradition of so many originators of breakthrough ideas, Mark Sheahan was neither an inventor nor a packaging designer when he first picked up that tin of shoe polish.
Something of a maverick, his CV includes a two-year spell as a croupier spinning the roulette wheel and dealing blackjack in a number of London casinos; running boat discos for BBC staff, and writing and publishing a manual on how best to spray car bodies.
He did have connections with the plastics industry, which enabled him to attract the attention of Lawson Mardon, who promptly invested £30K in holding fees but took too long to realise its potential and lost out to the Courtauld’s group.
With the deal apparently secured, however, Courtauld’s merged with Akzo Nobel and the packaging side of the business – including Sheahan’s closure development – was sold separately in an MBO to Betts UK who, despite a large amount of effort, were unable to commercialise the product.
It was by no means the first of a number of delays and setbacks experienced by Mark Sheahan but, says the inventor, is the one that rankles the most.
“I’ve had lots of lows and lots of highs. Inventing is like that. It’s the nature of the business.”
RPC is another UK based packaging manufacturer that has taken up a licence for six designated product areas but to date has struggled to achieve any commerical breakthroughs despite proposing it in many forms to a range of potential customers. RPC has also been disappointed at the lack of response.
The licence runs through until early 2005 and, according to Mark Sheahan, there have now been recent indications of a more positive interest.
More symptomatic of the corporate minefield confronting a one-man operation was the cynicism displayed by a leading brand owner in the cosmetics sector.
Having satisfied themselves that adoption of the ‘simply squeeze’ technology would achieve a 1500-tonne/yr reduction in plastics material costs and a 50% reduction in lid production time, they demanded a year’s exclusivity plus free consultancy, after which they would decide whether to adopt Mark Sheahan’s technology.
Following the expiry of the Betts licence, Mark Sheahan took his idea to the States, where packaging manufacturer RXI Plastics quickly snapped it up.
It turned out to be one of the last actions taken by that company before it was itself acquired by the larger Silgan PET bottle-manufacturing group.
Once again Mark found himself sidelined by corporate manoeuvres outside of his control. This time, however, there was a happier outcome.
Silgan has now developed two different applications, of which a squeeze to open tobacco pack is targeted to sell 700M units. If successful, the licensing agreement should realise royalty payments of £3.5M on that one application alone.
Mark Sheahan’s view is that no single company can service all potential user industries, so his strategy is to sell licences selectively on a designated product area basis.
With 67 manufacturing units spread across the US, Silgan has 16 categories to go at. This still leaves him with 40 plus other areas of likely application for which he’s currently identifying additional US licensees.
Licences are allocated on a territorial basis. He’s spent over £60K so far on securing patents world-wide, some with a life expectancy of up to 20 years.
“The cost of change is expensive but it is nowhere near as expensive as standing still.”
Mark Sheahan, inventor – Simply-Squeeze-to-open
“It’s kept me poor,” says Sheahan with a wry smile. That said it now looks as though, after years of unsuccessfully knocking on doors, it could end up making him rich.
While the US has provided the initial breakthrough, interest in the squeeze-to-open closure is building in Europe.
Having turned down an earlier proposal from Mark Sheahan six years ago on the grounds that his pack design for their shoe polish range was too innovative and ahead of its time, Sara Lee is now reviewing the closure.
Mr Sheahan’s company, Comp-Gen, is itself going into manufacture with a range of squeeze-to-open promotional packs for use as desktop storage containers.
An order has already been promised from no less a body than the British Library.
Mr Sheahan is adamant that this excursion into marketing giveaways in no way trivialises the pack.
“On the contrary, it does exactly what I want it to do; it gets it used and it gives me history.
“If people like it as much as our market research indicates, then it’s much more likely to migrate into mainstream packaging as they become accustomed to its sheer simplicity as an opening mechanism.
“That developing level of expectation from the consumer end makes my job that much easier to sell it in to brand owners and packaging manufacturers.”
By taking simply squeeze-to-open to market himself, Mark Sheahan is actively looking at tamper-evident applications through the development of a CRC extension.
“A tear-pack would be out of the question. Too much rigidity required,” he says. “You could do a CRC theoretically by applying a simple press and squeeze pressure or, alternatively, only being able to operate the squeeze mechanism when, say, two arrows lined up.
Devices like that currently on the market are still beyond the capabilities of, say, an arthritis sufferer.”
In Mark Sheahan’s conservative estimation, it’s taken 10 years and £0.75M of his own money and licences to get his squeeze-to-open closure finally into production.
During that time, the technology has picked up at least 10 major world-wide innovation awards.
This year alone it has taken the gold medal at the 31st International Exhibition of Inventions in Geneva and the premier prize from the Taiwan Innovation Association. It collec-ted two gold medals at the INPEX show plus the grand prix award as overall winner in Pittsburgh.
Mark Sheahan himself ended up as winner of the innovator of the year title at the London Innovation Awards.
Consumer opinion and that of his peers is unanimously positive. Why then has it taken the packaging industry so long to latch on to a design that significantly reduces material usage, cuts production time in half and, unlike so many packs which can be as difficult to get into as Fort Knox, actually lives up to its promise?
“Some of the people in the companies that I have approached don’t really want to take that risk. I get the feeling that they don’t want to rock the boat too much.
“A couple of little savings here and there, that’s fine; but a major new packaging closure – well, their job could be in jeopardy if the sales don’t materialise.”
An attendant problem is, of course, the categorisation of ease of accessibility packaging as solutions designed exclusively for a perceived minority group – not that an estimated 7M arthritis sufferers in the UK alone could be sensibly so designated.
Throw in the fact that the relatively cash-rich, time-poor 50+ age group now outnumbers its teenage children and grandchildren, and the market for openability assumes clear commercial viability.
Regardless of these bare statistics, two-thirds of the FTSE top 100 have no discernible strategies in place for what has to be a prime marketing opportunity, regardless of varying levels of manual impairment.
There is another reason for a closed mind-set when confronted with innovation – that is of existing capital investment, aligned to a blinkered desire to retain market control.
“Having a large market share can cause a problem,” notes Mark Sheahan. “The cost of change is expensive but it is nowhere near as expensive as standing still.