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."