When we started our search for inventors, it was a slow moving project. Then with one swoop, we were overwhelmed with local creators who have made life more fun or more convenient, and medical practitioners who have taken some of life’s most frustrating ailments and created and/or participated in projects toward fixing them. While it is impossible to include all of our local FDA-approved and/or patented inventors in this issue, we wanted to introduce you, our readers, to some of the best and brightest of Ventura County. We hope their stories serve as an inspiration to get your creative juices flowing and make your invention a reality. If you know anyone or you have personally created something that is now, or will be soon, available to the public, please e-mail editor@vcreporter.com. And stay tuned for our second edition of Ventura County Inventors coming in the future.


Steve Axtell
Puppet maker, puppeteer, ventroloquist
Latest creation: Special hand mechanism — shaka sign — for Terry Fator’s new puppet

Steve Axtell learned how to make a puppet when he was 6 years old, and since then, he has become a skilled puppet maker, puppeteer and ventriloquist. His puppets have appeared in films as well as on television, including his own show. Chances are, you have seen an Axtell puppet, and you just did not realize it.

Axtell notably began creating puppets using latex, which presents a more human appearance, and launched his Ventura-based company, Axtell Expressions, in the 1980s. Axtell and his team continue to be at the front line in creating new and advancing technology used in puppetry.

“We are really an entertainment company,” said Axtell.

He makes not only puppets for the mass market, but also custom orders for entertainers such as Jay Johnson (acclaimed ventriloquist/comic/writer/puppeteer) and Terry Fator (current headliner at the Mirage and winner of America’s Got Talent), who use them in their shows.

Recently, he included a special hand mechanism (“shaka” sign) for Terry Fator’s new puppet, which will debut at the Mirage in Las Vegas this month.

“Terry wanted the character to be a Hawaiian-Samoan singer. Seeing this chubby character singing and then reaches up, the shaka sign is the hook,” he explained.

The shaka sign (the thumb and pinky extended, the three remaining fingers curled) is the legendary hand gesture for “hang loose” in Hawaiian culture, and has long been adapted into the surfing community in California.

Seemingly, Axtell Expressions is the first to build this gesture into a mechanical device for a puppet. Not only does the mechanism allow the puppet to execute the “hang loose” gesture, but it can also maintain it while engaged in an activity such as playing an instrument.

“We do a lot of things that are first of its kind, and if they are not, they are an improvement,” said Axtell.

He holds six patents — one of which is the Magic Drawing Board, which allows the user to draw a character that comes to life (you can talk to the board) and erase when you want to start over.

Axtell was determined to make Fator a puppet that can be authentic as a Hawaiian character and with his team, set about by trial and error to make a hand mechanism that will essentially “make the puppet.”

He admits that custom puppets can change the creation process; Axtell and his team normally spend a significant amount of time bringing a concept to life.

“With the engineering and creative side, it can be months. With Terry’s puppet, including the shaka made a difference because of using a lever instead of strumming. The rod controls the arm motion, and the trigger mechanism controls the fingers,” he explained.

As Terry Fator debuts his Hawaiian character this month, a yet-to-be-titled documentary will also be released detailing Axtell Expressions’ process of building it for him. And although Axtell is pleased with his creation, the modest puppet-builder is eager to continue with his projects, which are always works in progress because innovation in puppet building often happens in the moment.

Michael Levin  •  Photo by Heber Pelayo

Michael Levin
Owner of Opti-Gone International
Creation: Mirage

In the mid-70s, Michael Levin of Ojai saw a prototype of an “unusual art object,” and the intrigue led him, eventually, to purchase the rights, make some changes and create Mirage, which certainly transcends being a toy, but the “instant magic” it produces leads to childlike wonder for all.

“What is unique about Mirage is that its technology is the only one that makes objects appear in the air,” said Levin.

After 36 years on the market, Mirage is still the only optical illusion device that identically reproduces the image of the solid object within, while offering easy substitution of objects. It is user friendly; you do not need any training to create the hologram.

When he acquired the prototype, Levin changed the mirrors from glass to acrylics, a decision that he explains, made Mirage a lot less fragile and increased the resolution.

At nine inches in diameter, the small device consists of two parabolic mirrors, which by the rules of physics are dish-shaped. The top half has a circular opening to allow for the final result.

To obtain the hologram, the desired item or items (small) are placed in the center of the bottom mirror, then the top half is attached by simply fitting it into its counterpart; and suddenly, the object appears in the air as if it is real.

“It’s a strange sensation of being able to put your fingers through what appears to be a solid object,” he added.

Based in Ojai, Opti-Gone International has been behind the production of Mirage since 1977. The company name, which was originally meant for the product, reflects the concept; creating an “optical” illusion that is “gone” when picked up.

Levin has refrained from advertising the optical illusion, its popularity has grown. Until 10 years ago, the company was known as Opti-Gone Associates but the once difficult-to-track-down item (available only through Opti-Gone) became more accessible with the help of the internet, prompting the name change.

“The Internet played a big role, especially in expanding into just about every country in the world and allowing so many people everywhere to find the product on our site.”

And while the desktop model of the optical illusion is the standard purchase, there also exists a larger version, the Giant Mirage. It is 22 inches in diameter and can usually be found at corporate trade shows, universities and museums. So far, it is installed in museums around the world including Egypt, Korea, Tasmania, and Indonesia.

Worldwide, Mirage has been especially useful in the educational field, from physics to math to psychology, and educators apply it as a learning tool for students of all ages.

Whereas Mirage is not a mass market item, the general public can and has appreciated its “instant magic”. It’s reported that former president George H.W Bush purchased one for Ronald Reagan in 1989.

“Over the years, we get orders from people who are buying it as a nice gift, or eye doctors who want to put it on their desks or others who want one because their parents had one,” Levin explained.

For 36 years and counting, Opti-Gone continues to manufacture Mirage in the United States, offering what is now a classic item to those seeking a sense of wonder, for educational purposes or just because.

 Deanna Dickson  •  Photo by Heber Pelayo

Deanna Dickson
Business owner of Dee Dee’s Dog Spot
Creation: Wrap Snap & Go

Deanna Dickson, owner of Dee Dee’s Dog Spot in Ventura and Ojai, invented the Wrap Snap & Go hair rollers out of frustration as well as necessity; she could not find what she was looking for so she did it herself.

Dickson had been living in Fiji for a year, her hair long and healthy, only to return to California with a desire for curls but lacking a means to curl it without chemicals or curlers. Her beautiful hair became damaged from a perm and the quest for a better curling method began; eventually, she invented Wrap Snap & Go rollers.

“I thought to myself, there must be a roller that I could sleep in that could give me lasting curls for a day, but after so many attempts, I found nothing,” she explained.

With her family’s help, Dickson got to work. The “snap” idea came to her while “snapping” her daughter’s diaper. While the foam, which makes the rollers very light weight, was inspired by her ex-husband, who used backer rod (foam used to fill joints between building materials) for work.

“We rented a warehouse in Anaheim and it took us three months to do 250 sets, with 20 rollers a set. We would, sew, snip and snap. Afterwards, we went out to sell them and I was approached by the company within a week,” she said.

The rollers became a Home Shopping Network sensation in 1999 and 1 million had been sold by 2002. The distinctive leopard-print curlers became a must-have tool for many, like Dickson, seeking curls without the possibility of damage from heat or chemicals.

According to Exceptional Products, Inc. (EPI), the company behind “As Seen on TV” promotions of the product, one of the appealing factors of the Wrap Snap & Go is that it saves time; who wouldn’t want an extra hour of sleep in the morning, it asks.

They can apparently work in as little as 20 minutes, “during your morning routine”;  or for those who prefer, set the rollers at night and wake up to a head full of tight, bouncy curls.

The rollers are reportedly comfortable to sleep on all night, much like a pillow, and are machine washable, convenient for travel and can create traditional or spiral curls. The kit also includes a 16-page “Secrets to Beautiful Curls” instructional booklet.

Amidst the pros, however, there have been some customers who are not completely satisfied.

“I have read some consumers don’t like the crazy curls or some have a hard time rolling their hair. But both are rectified after a couple of uses — when they learn what works for them,” Dickson said.

The patented interlocking technology is designed to lift hair at the roots, resulting in better curls with greater volume and lift. And in the years, it has been on the market at Target, Sally’s, CVS and Walgreens, Wrap Snap & Go has had predominantly positive reviews.



Paul Dougherty, M.D.  •  Photo by Heber Pelayo

Paul Dougherty, M.D.
Ophthalmologist, corrective eye surgeon

FDA-approval pending:  PresbyLens, corneal implant for farsightedness; Natural Ophthalmics Inc. eye drops
The medical director of Dougherty Laser Vision, Paul Dougherty, M.D, of Camarillo, is widely recognized as an authority in the latest revolutionary techniques in ophthalmology. He was among the first in his field to perform laser eye surgery (LASIK) prior to its approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1995, and he continues to participate in the development and progress of LASIK and non-laser procedures (implantable contacts and intraocular lenses).

Dougherty has served as the principal investigator in six Phase 3 FDA clinical trials, two of which have already led to approval. He is currently the principal investigator in the ReVision Optics Inc.-sponsored clinical trial for the PresbyLens corneal implant that may potentially aid patients with presbyopia.

Presbyopia is farsightedness caused by the eyes inability to focus on close objects due to hardening of the lenses.

“Presbyopia affects every human, starting in the early 40s requiring patients to wear reading glasses or bifocals over their glasses or contact lenses,” Dougherty explained.

The clinical trial entry requirements are specific, and not everyone who suffers from presbyopia can participate; only those with excellent distance vision without glasses and poor reading vision without glasses are suitable candidates.

The enrollment for this trial ended in September. The corneal implant procedure is expected to be relatively painless and to be performed without charge to the patients, who will be paid by the company to attend follow-up visits.

As with any medical procedure, although minimal, the implant does carry its risks, which include infection, flap problems, inflammation or implant dislocation.

Dougherty explained that, as seen through the trial, these risks are extremely low.

The benefit, however, is seemingly immeasurable — no more reading glasses. Although the trial only includes certain individuals, the PresbyLens corneal implant is intended, eventually, to help patients outside the clinical trial criteria.

“We expect that when and if FDA approved, this corneal implant would then be more widely used, including placing it into people to improve reading vision after cataract surgery or at the same time of LASIK for patients who are nearsighted or farsighted, to improve reading vision,” said Dougherty.

Currently available, the Monovision LASIK improves reading vision but decreases distance vision whereas the PresbyLens aims to make the improvement without a considerable decrease.

According to Dougherty, “Success in the clinical trial is measured by the improved reading vision without glasses, without taking away significant distance vision, with a minimum of complications.”

The PresbyLens corneal implant may prove to be a life-altering breakthrough, but the FDA will determine the approval, which is expected to take years.

In the meantime, Dougherty continues his noteworthy role in the clinical trial, which is scheduled to begin its next phase this year. Also, he has begun a study for Natural Ophthalmics Inc., treading uncharted waters with a homeopathic eye drop for use in the first week after LASIK.

Yet again, he assumes the role of principal investigator, this time alongside his accomplished colleague Elise Brisco, O.D., of the Hollywood Vision Center in Los Angeles.

“Homeopathic eye drops offer such a natural alternative way to potentially prevent dry eye symptoms after LASIK, and I was interested in trying a more natural treatment,” he said of his involvement in the study.

Although it has not reached its ideal number of participants, the study is under way at Dougherty Laser Vision in Camarillo and Hollywood Vision Center. To participate, one must qualify for LASIK without a history of dry eyes or use of eye drops.

LASIK may be performed for a variety of reasons but the most common side-effect that links the patients is dry eye, which typically lasts for a few days to a few weeks after the procedure, causing burning, itching and stinging.

Generally, individuals with these symptoms seek relief from one of several available artificial lubricants, which relieve the irritation by replacing the eyes’ natural tears.

Dougherty and Brisco’s homeopathic remedy goes a step further, however, by stimulating the natural tear production in addition to replacing the missing tears.

“Artificial tears simply treat symptoms of dry eye but homeopathic drops have trace amounts of an ingredient that theoretically stimulates the natural immune system to prevent it,” said Dougherty.

The objective of the study is for the individuals using the homeopathic drops to have fewer symptoms of dry eyes compared to those using artificial drops one week after LASIK, as well as better tear quality and production.

Ultimately, treating and preventing dry eye with a natural agent is seemingly not only more effective but potentially may have no known side effects, except the very rare possibility of an allergic reaction associated with any treatment.

“The beauty of homeopathic formulations is that the active ingredient is present in such trace amounts that side effects should not occur,” Dougherty said.



Madelene Heng, M.D.

Madalene Heng, M.D.
Creation: Psoria-Gold curcumin gel

Madalene Heng, M.D., of Oxnard, is an internationally known dermatologist whose research and analysis in topics, such as psoriasis, have been featured in more than 130 scientific publications. Although Heng’s specialty involves a wide variety of conditions, it was her particular interest in psoriasis that led her to create the curcumin gel Psoria-Gold.

The origin of the curcumin gel began in 1994 while Dr. Heng was continuing her research into the cause of psoriasis, about which her first paper was published in 1983.

According to Heng, phosphorylase kinase (PhK), an enzyme found in the body, is an important key to understanding psoriasis and the birth of Psoria-Gold.

“I noticed there were fewer glycogen granules in psoriasis. This was interesting because other skin diseases and healthy skin all had more glycogen molecules, which have an important connection to the PhK enzyme,” she explained.

After her discovery, Heng developed a skin analysis for PhK activity.

Five minutes after skin injury or contact allergy, PhK is released to the skin and activated by a switch-on mechanism. In normal individuals, PhK is switched off following skin repair — but individuals with psoriasis possess a malfunctioning switch-off mechanism, which triggers an outbreak of psoriasis by causing high levels of PhK in the skin by not shutting off after repair.

“At that time, I was looking for a PhK inhibitor, and I found it in curcumin gel, which I observed was able to return psoriatic skin to normal,” she added.

The curcumin gel, which is derived from turmeric, has two purposes — inhibiting the activity of PhK and eliminating damaged cells in certain types of injury such as burns, therefore allowing for replacement with new healthy cells that aids in healing of skin injury and damage.

The treatment process is dependent on the type of injury or damage a patient has, but reportedly, the first step is eliminating any precipitating factors (hair dyes, elastics, lactose allergies, or bacterial infections).

“Use of the curcumin gel may also be in combination with a course of antibiotics and/or steroids. When the patient is completely clear, the plan is to withdraw the patient from topical steroid creams and antibiotics, followed eventually by withdrawal from curcumin gel,” said Heng.

The curcumin gel is normally used for a shorter period of time, compared to standard treatments such as corticosteroids. These treatments do not suppress PhK, thereby leading to expensive and sometimes lifelong treatments that are usually accompanied by unpleasant side-effects.

There are other turmeric-based treatments available as pills but apparently, very little natural curcumin is absorbed orally. The pills do contain helpful properties, such as anti-histamine (counteracts allergic reactions) but do not contain anti-PhK activity.

Psoria-Gold has one noted inconvenience.

“Curcumin gel has a yellow color and can possibly stain. However, the staining can be washed off with soap and water,” said Heng.

Heng’s discovery of the importance of PhK activity in skin diseases has played a significant role in her treatment regimens to heal injury and damage to the skin. Not content to be helping patients with Psoria-Gold, she continues to do scientific research on various subjects and aspires to continue to contribute in dermatology with possible other creations. Dr. Heng is currently practicing in Ventura County while serving as clinical professor of medicine at the UCLA School of Medicine.