PETER Chen Tien-hsiung walks into the conference room wearing a vest with flashing lights of blinding intensity. In his hands, he carries a pair of roller skates that sparkle coloured twinkling lights upon contact with the ground. Today, the 56-year-old Chinese-American inventor has road safety on his mind. And to make roads safe and sound for traffic police, construction workers and roller-skaters, he is not afraid of looking like Robert Redford in The Electric Horseman. Sensing puzzlement among his audience, Mr Chen takes off his vest, unfolds it and hangs it up on the wall as a road sign - the flashing arrows aligned to point the direction for oncoming traffic. 'You see the convenience, and it can light up for days on two AA batteries,' he says. 'And no batteries [are] necessary [for] the skates. Physical impact generates the electrical pulses.' An inventor for more than 42 years, Mr Chen is also a salesman with a difference. He sells ideas and exotic products you cannot find anywhere else, gadgets which, depending on the person, may be seen as either the most fabulous inventions since the computer, or solutions to problems that may not have been all that pressing in the first place. He travels across China and Asia to market his products. His huge briefcase contains more tricks. 'Do you often get overcharged by the Water Supplies Department?' he asks. He pulls out a digital water filter that counts the number of litres passing through it. 'This one, I have a patent for,' he announces proudly. 'You can now keep an accurate count of the amount of water used.' Unlike the litres of water, Mr Chen has lost count of the number of inventions he lays claim to since his first invention at 14. He still has a fond memory of the first contrivance: an automatic roller that squeezes out every last drop of toothpaste from a tube. 'Imagine how much toothpaste it saves,' Mr Chen exclaims. 'But it never caught on, though I still think it's got market potential.' Listening to him, one is not sure whether he is a Thomas Edison or Kenji Kawakami, the Japanese founder of Chindogu - humorous inventions designed for a purpose but whose absurd impracticality makes them virtually useless. Mr Chen is the chairman of the American Chinese Invention Association. He is also a typical representative of the 125-strong Hong Kong Inventors Association (HKIA). Like Mr Chen, HKIA members are serious about their work and many dream of hitting a home run with their inventions one day. In the room with Mr Chen are design engineer Lam Chun and fellow HKIA member Chan Hung-hon. Mr Lam has invented a circuit breaker that activates during a short circuit in 0.8 to two seconds, compared with 10 to 60 seconds for a conventional safety fuse, he claims. He invites me to put my figures on two metal plates. 'Don't be afraid. Yes, both fingers here,' he says. A sharp painful electric current shoots through my arm for a split second then stops. 'Imagine 60 seconds of that. It's enough to electrocute anyone. My invention will save lives,' he says. 'The market out there is huge, once people realise how useful this new device is.' Mr Lam is so convinced of the market potential he has set up a company and is devoting himself full-time to promoting his invention. His colleague Mr Chan has a fascination with fire. Famous fires do for him what trainspotting does for railway enthusiasts. He knows details about each one of them and even has an hour-long video of news footage showing many of the great inferno accidents in recent years. He has developed what he claims is a foolproof device against explosion and fire inside containers holding inflammable liquids. In a fire, the device cuts off oxygen and creates a vacuum. Mr Chan believes his invention could have prevented the blazes engulfing Kuwaiti oil wells started by Saddam Hussein's retreating army after the Gulf War. How come those oil companies did not think of this with their millions and millions of dollars spent on research? 'Good ideas are not something you can buy anytime you want,' he replies. Mr Chan plans to market his design globally, if he can find the money. This is where HKIA comes in. 'Most inventors don't have much commercial sense,' chairman Cheung King-fung explains. 'Our association gives advice, direction and a forum to our members. I come from an industrial and commercial background so I have a sense of what has marketing potential and what doesn't.' Mr Cheung says many members are not inventors, but people from different industries looking for new ideas and products. Their membership helps inventors find commercial partners. While university researchers receive financial support and technical and legal advice from in-house technology transfer specialists, independent inventors generally receive no help from either private or government institutions. Set up in 1996, HKIA tries to play a more supportive role. Even so, it does not have the resources to finance its inventors. According to University of Hong Kong electrical engineering professor Victor Li On-kwok, unless they are independently rich, these inventors are unlikely to achieve financial success with their gadgets. Professor Li is the managing director of Versitech, a technology transfer consultancy wholly owned by the university to help its scientists market their research. He says the price for marketing a new innovative product is prohibitive for most people. For example, applying for a patent in the United States alone would cost at least $200,000. But the really tough part is finding an industrial or commercial partner willing to put up the front money to produce and market the product, he says. 'Without university funding, most people don't have this kind of finance,' he says. 'Realistically, inventing should be looked upon as more of a hobby than a money-making enterprise, at least within the context of Hong Kong.' As if to prove Professor Li's point, HKIA inevitably points to its one shining glory, a rear-view mirror for cars invented by member So Fuk-sang that won a prize at the Nuremberg International Invention Exhibition in Germany last year and was sold to Volvo and Chrysler. The mirror is installed on the dashboard. It doubles the angle of vision and removes blind spots and cost Dr So $3 million to develop and patent in 26 countries. Dr So could afford the money because he was a doctor turned successful textile trader. Most other members could not. And for every brilliant idea that works, you can be sure there are dozens of duds along the way. The road to discovery is littered with failures and false starts, as HKIA members readily admit. Given the high rate of failure, inventors are a bit like waitresses who dream of becoming movie stars. Still, their enthusiasm is infectious and you really wish they can make it big. 'Inventing is our way of life,' Mr Chen says. 'I travel around the world to promote my own inventions as well as those by our association's members. 'It's an exciting way to make a living.' However, the best advice for would-be inventors seems to be this: if you have a day job, keep it.