Could CNBC’S New ‘Make Me A Millionaire Inventor’ Ever Make Millionaires?
Back in 2005 at the National Institutes of Health, chemist George Zaidan had a puzzle on his hands. He was trying to learn how much oxygen was inside proteins, without ever breaking them open.
He knew the project could prove impossible. But Zaidan still said, “let’s try it.”
Ten years later, he’s putting that same spirit into action as a host on the new CNBC show “Make Me A Millionaire Inventor.”
The show, a sort-of Mythbusters-meets-Shark-Tank mashup, airs Wednesdays at 10 ET/PT (and here). On screen, Zaidan and his co-host Deanne Bell, a mechanical engineer, pluck inventors out of their homes and garages across the country, and usher them into labs and boardrooms, hoping to successfully launch their pet projects.
But just how easy is it to become a so-called “millionaire inventor?”
“That’s just incredibly rare,” says Polk Wagner, a Penn Law professor and expert in patent law. “You’re probably not a whole lot better off than buying lottery tickets, the likelihood of striking rich making an invention.”
Wagner says “it’s really hard to get an invention of yours commercialized in the modern economy.” He says over the past few years, U.S. patent laws have shifted to favor larger companies, “in particular large tech industries.”
Initial patent costs and legal fees nudge inventors to shed anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 upfront, with no promise their patent will pay off, and then spend an average of three years waiting to be approved.
But on this first season of the show, the typical wait times and odds of success for a dozen new inventions will each get a very rare bump towards market success.
The show puts budding inventors in front of scientists and engineers who trim the fat from their prototypes, and turn basic sketches on paper into whirring, whizzing machines: a bubbling party tower of marinara sauce, a snow cone-shaving vending machine, or a football mouthguard that protects players from concussions.
More than prompting new inventors into the field, host Zaidan sees the show as a way to unlock some of the mystery of that messy scientific process of inventing in a lab.
“It’s more than just reading the results of an invention or an engineering discovery or a scientific discovery,” Zaidan says. “It’s seeing how that’s done.”
So while the show doesn’t always provide a winning final combination of a working product and solid investor backing, Zaidan says sometimes that’s ok. He isn’t expecting to make a breakthrough every time he walks into the lab (he never did figure out how much oxygen was in those proteins at NIH).
“The pain, the blood sweat and tears, people don’t really see all of that stuff,” he says. “I’ve decided to give up before, so I know what that’s like, too.”
The show does give each of the inventions that are picked a chance to be vetted and road-tested by scientists and engineers in the lab, and the potential to be backed by critically-needed investors.
And Zaidan hopes that the show can be one more way to excite in viewers both young and old “that childlike wonder and amazement of the world.”
Law expert Polk agrees.
“It’s sort of a uniquely American thing to desire to build a better mousetrap, or invent a new company in your garage,” the professor says. “It’s such an American thing, and I think it’s served us well.”
So while the market for small and medium business patents may be weaker than ever, the tinkering American inventor will live on…on reality TV, anyway.