PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) _ Jay Sorensen found inspiration to be a painful experience.

He had lost his family service station and was barely making a living as a real estate agent when a cup of hot coffee he was holding with a napkin slipped into his lap.

But Sorensen turned his luck around by inventing the Java Jacket, a cup holder of quilted cardboard that provides a good grip as well as insulation from the hot coffee inside.

Almost entirely through word of mouth, Sorensen has turned Java Jacket into a business with more than 2,000 accounts in all 50 states. His company has been picking up about 150 accounts a month.

``It truly was the best thing that ever happened to me,'' he said. ``We started out with nothing but a $10,000 debt to a patent attorney. Talk about going from one business extreme to the other.''

He estimates he will ship about 4.5 million of the recycled cardboard sleeves this month, but he's keeping sales figures private. Even if it's just pennies per sleeve in profit, his product is attracting attention because of the money it saves coffee retailers by eliminating a second paper cup as insulation.

``We hope it catches on because the problem it solves is `double cupping,' which is both expensive and wasteful,'' said Ted Lingle, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, based in Langhorne, Pa.

The association predicts that retail coffee sales will double to $3 billion in 1999 from $1.5 billion in 1989, leaving plenty of room for growth for Sorensen.

He first offered his cup holder to the Seattle-based Starbucks coffee shop chain, but the company turned him down in a move that may have proved a blessing in disguise.

Sorensen went on to obtain a patent for his product, and instead of licensing it or selling it, he started his own company with the help of his wife, Colleen, and his father, Don.

He negotiated a contract with PAC Paper in Vancouver, Wash., to produce the cardboard sleeves, and set up a warehouse for storage and shipping.

Now, many coffee chains have taken interest in the Java Jacket and even Starbucks is testing its own version of the product in some markets.

``We thought it was a great idea and concept,'' said Corinne Bloomfield, a spokeswoman for the Portland, Ore.-based Coffee People chain.

``They're recyclable, they're reusable, and they actually keep the heat from your hand better than a second cup. And our customers like it because they feel like they're not wasting a cup.''