We lost a true innovator this week
If you were an athlete or outdoor enthusiast back in the 80's and 90's, there was one product that revolutionized your life. Gore-Tex. The remarkable fabric achieved a balance between breathability and water resistance we hadn't seen before. Before Gore-Tex, we were always faced with a choice -- wear that plastic rain jacket and get ready to be hot and sweaty, or wear the light breathable shell and hope you didn't get soaked. Never again. Gore-Tex changed all that.
Sadly, the inventor of Gore-Tex, and chairman emeritus of W.L. Gore & Associates, Inc, Robert W. Gore, passed away this week. The Gore company has always been a legendary innovator, but it was arguably Patent #3,953,566 that started it all. "Process for producing porous products" claimed a process for stretching a tetrafluoroethylene polymer (such as Teflon). The key discovery by Mr. Gore was that when the polymer is stretched, it creates air gaps that produce the perfect porous material -- keeping water out but allowing vapors to pass through, giving Gore-Tex it's legendary breathability. And in a twist common in many great innovative stories, Gore wasn't even looking for a material to make a great rain jacket. He was just trying to stretch Teflon to make, believe it or not, pipe-thread tape.
Gore's patent #3,953,566 issued in 1976, and jackets with this innovative Gore-Tex material started showing up just a year later. Outdoor enthusiasts have been hooked ever since.
The commercial success of Gore-Tex tells us it was indeed truly innovative -- privately-held Gore has $3.8 billion in revenues. But you really only need to look at that initial patent #3,953,566 to see the reach of their invention. This one patent has 1,519 citations. Yes, 1,519 citations. That means 1,519 later patent applications have tried to improve upon or advance the technology of that Gore patent. That's how you as an inventor know you are onto something valuable. Patents with 100 citations are impressive in their own right. But 1,519 is truly legendary. It's not surprising this one patent paved the way for a billion-dollar business.
So take a walk in the rain this week, and thank Robert Gore when you make it home warm and dry.
Note: Gore-Tex is a trademark of W.L. Gore and Associates. Teflon is a trademark of DuPont.