EDITORIAL: Pepper-spray device poor choice for Maine group's innovation honor

·2 min read

May 19—Build a better mousetrap, the proverb goes, and the world will beat a path to your door.

According to Maine's manufacturing trade group, this year's better mousetrap is a device that lets you sit in your car while you pepper-spray pedestrians.

That this is considered a fresh, new idea is a sad comment on how paranoid our society has become. And before this product becomes standard equipment, we should have a serious conversation about the wisdom of turning every new car or pickup truck into a chemical warfare delivery system.

The product was conceived by Michael Mercer, whose South Portland company, F3 Defense, wants to develop products for police departments as well as the general public. A retired police officer and a chemical agent specialist in the Navy, Mercer said he got the idea from stories he heard about violent acts committed during the civil rights protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020.

His presentation earned Mercer the Innovator of the Year Award last week from the Manufacturers Association of Maine. He has also been included in the Maine Center for Entrepreneurs' Top Gun program, which helps new businesses bring their products to market.

Both organizations seem to have misunderstood the meaning of business innovation. It's not just a new idea but also an idea that is supposed to fill a need.

A car-based, crowd-control pepper-spray distribution device is novel, but it seems more likely to exploit people's fears than to solve a real problem. Pedestrians are much more likely to be killed or injured by a driver than the other way around.

That Mercer says he was inspired by the George Floyd protests should have been a big red flag for the business groups that honored his idea. Throughout 2020, armed people started showing up among protesters and counter protesters, leading to deadly showdowns. The last thing Maine businesses should be celebrating is a new weapon that could escalate future confrontations.

Developing ideas for new ways to solve problems are key to a dynamic economy because innovation drives business creation and new businesses drive economic growth. Previous Innovator of the Year awards have gone to advances in 3-D metal printing and microscopic imaging made by local businesses and university researchers. The runner-up for the Innovator of the Year award this year was a company that is making biomedical products out of fish processing waste.

But inventing solutions to exaggerated problems that play on social division is the last thing entrepreneurial groups should honor. This is not the "better mousetrap" with which we want to lead the world to Maine.