Will You Invent the Next Post-It Note?

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BOSTON (TheStreet) -- There's a scene in the 1997 film Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, in which one of the title characters claims she invented 3M's (Stock Quote: MMM) Post-It notes.

It's meant to garner laughs but, as it turns out, 3M accepts product pitches from real-life inventors.

3M sells 55,000 products across 45 technology platforms and 35 business units, covering areas including health care (Steri-Strip adhesive-skin closures); office products (Post-Its); manufacturing and industry (lots of kinds of tape); and transportation (conspicuity markings for school buses).

The company racked up $1.3 billion in research-and-development expenditures in 2009, bringing the five-year total to $6.9 billion. That includes the salaries of 6,700 3M researchers worldwide.

To foster internal innovation, 3M has adopted a corporate "bootlegging" policy, in which technical staff are permitted to spend up to 15% of their time on pet projects. The 1974 invention of Post-It notes was borne of a bootlegging effort: Frustrated that a bookmark kept falling out of his hymnal, 3M scientist Arthur Fry found a practical use for the adhesive formula invented by another 3M scientist, Spencer Silver. Scotch Tape, invented by Richard Drew in 1930, was also the result of a bootlegging project.

3M welcomes input from outsiders, too, via a strict Web-based submission process.

The company is adamant that submissions go through the Web form (i.e., it discourages cold calls). Every pitch is reviewed by a human, an external coordinator, who vets them for basic prerequisites before sending them on to the appropriate department. That person handles about 800 submissions annually.

Entrepreneurs should note that the company won't consider a new product unless it has been granted a patent but, otherwise, the initial vetting requirements are pretty broad.

"I screen them at a very high level," says the external coordinator, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid unsolicited phone calls from impatient inventors. "If I were to reject an idea, it would be something that would be way, way out of our product base."

She notes, however, that the company also accepts submissions for updates and line extensions for existing 3M products, and that those submissions don't require a patent.

Ideas aren't kept confidential, but that shouldn't be a concern for submissions already protected by a patent. Entrepreneurs should expect to wait two to six weeks to receive an e-mail response from a 3M business unit.

On the flip side, 3M works with inventors who want to use the company's technology to develop products outside the company. 3M owns more than 20,000 patents, but it doesn't use them all, so it makes sense to license them to inventors who will. The Strategic Intellectual Asset Management business oversees the 3M technology-transfer office, which maintains an online catalog of technology available for license.

The cost of a license varies, and the company will consider donating technologies to nonprofit organizations.

"In many cases, placing the technology at the right university can be the best way to continue the development of an important technology that no longer fits in 3M's business strategy," according to 3M's Web site.

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