As President of a local inventors group I can’t tell you how many inventors I meet who have spent big bucks to procure a patent but never built a prototype. So they have no idea if the invention really works. Others who have a garage full of product, just collecting dust because they never tested the market before hand. However, most successful inventors and product development companies that I know, start off with a Proof of Concept Analysis BEFORE they start spending money. So if they do it, why not you?
A full Proof of Concept Analysis consists of three equally important parts: Business Analysis, Ownership Analysis and Product Analysis. These steps should be developed simultaneously or at least completed before moving on to development or you WILL certainly regret it later. I usually start with the one that I consider to be the weakest link in the chain. For example, if I think ownership might be an issue I will do a pretty strong patent, product and industry search especially if I think I have seen something similar.
After you savor that wonderful “Moment of Discovery” and you have finished daydreaming about striking it rich, you really do need to move forward to take a cold hard honest look at your new product. At this point you don’t have to go into excruciating detail, just a quick overview to make sure it is worth pursuing. The questions generated will form the basis of your development process.
Like anything in life worth doing, the path of an independent inventor from initial stage idea to making money can be challenging. If it were easy then everyone would be a rich inventor. Luckily for those who have the determination to pursue innovation as a business it is not easy enough for anyone to do, which means that there are opportunities available for those with ideas and determination. One of the keys to successfully making money as an inventor is understanding that those who are successful operate in a business responsible way, and this requires closely monitoring expenditure of funds. While you may want to rush out and build a prototype you need to be careful. There is nothing like the show and tell of a working prototype to lure investors, partners and licensing deals, but inventing is better viewed as a marathon than a 100 yard dash, and preserving capital is absolutely essential if you are going to be successful.
Doing a patent search to see if there is any realistic opportunity to move forward can also be a wise early stage step as well. Of course, having some kind of believe that what you have come up with will be feasible is quite important and should be done simultaneously with, or on the heels of, some kind of market analysis. After all, if there is no market opportunity it doesn’t make sense to move forward even if you can build it and the invention works perfectly.
There really is no one-size-fits-all approach to inventing that can be claimed to be a road-map to success that will work in all cases. Notwithstanding, there are certainly a number of things that can and should be done early in the inventing process if an inventor is going to pursue inventing as more than a hobby. I continually preach to inventors the need to follow what I call a “business responsible” approach, which is really just my way of counseling inventors to remember that the goal is to not only invent but to hopefully make some money. Truthfully, the goal is to make more money than what has been invested, which is how the United States Congress defined “success” in the American Inventors Protection Act of 1999. The odds of being successful with one of your inventions increase dramatically if you engage in some simple steps to ensure you are not investing time and money on an invention that has little promise.
Finding reliable numbers on the overall “success rate” of patented inventions is difficult. Most have probably heard that about 2% of patents are commercially viable. I have heard estimates as high as 6%, and much lower than 2%. What makes this tricky is that for companies a single patent is usually a part of a larger patent portfolio, with some of the portfolio being acquired to protect core inventions that will make a lot of money, others being acquired for defensive purposes, and still others being acquired as some kind of morale boost type reward for hard working scientists and engineers who have indeed invented something. Further confounding certainty is the fact that some patents are acquired for licensing purposes, some are licensed in bulk as a part of a portfolio and some are never licensed because they relate to core innovations. Still further, it is possible, if not frequently the case, that multiple patents are acquired to cover core innovations, which means one successful product or service could account for tens, or even hundreds of “successful patents.”
In July I wrote Describing Your Invention Completely in a Patent Application, which focused on the type of information you want to include to capture the full glory of your invention. This article is a follow-up to that, focusing this time on what the law requires and why, concluding with suggestions to help in breaking through the idea and getting to something more tangible. Reading these two articles in conjunction should give a more complete understanding of what is required and how to get from idea to patentable invention.
I start this tale observing a central reality: Inventors are creative people who observe a problem and envision a solution. Practically anyone can be an inventor because the first step on the path to inventing is the generation of an idea. Unfortunately, ideas cannot be patented and for many individuals the path to invention stops right there. But it doesn’t have to stop there. Frequently you just need some help collecting thoughts and a little push in the right direction. In fact, many people are surprised by what is required to be an inventor and have an invention that is capable of being patented.
Over the years I have worked with many inventors as they seek to move forward with their inventions. As a patent attorney it is no great surprise that the overwhelming number of individuals I have worked with are interested in filing a patent application and ultimately obtaining a patent. Filing a patent application necessitates have drawings to include in the application, but patent drawings are not the only type of “drawings” that an inventor should be considering. Patent illustrations are wonderful for a patent application, but they don’t always do the invention justice if you are trying to capture the attention of a prospective licensee, or if you are trying to convince a buyer to place orders or sell the invention in their store.
Simply stated, patent illustrations and other types of invention drawings, such as 3D renderings and photo realistic virtual prototypes serve different purposes. For example, take a look at the figure below, provided courtesy of Enhance Product Development, a product development company with a great deal of experience licensing and developing products in consumer markets. The patent illustration is on the left, and a branded, photo realistic virtual prototype is shown on the right. Which do you think would better capture the attention of a prospective licensee?
If you want to license your invention for royalty payments, you have to deliver more than a “me too” product. Prospective companies will demand that your product exceed their standard profit goals in order to pay royalties, which represent increased expense.
Many inventors believe the way to get a company interested in their inventions is to write a letter – and then hope they receive an invitation to begin negotiations. This seldom happens.
Your licensing quest should begin by phoning and asking for your prospect’s invention submission guidelines. Know that many times unpatented inventions, or inventions without at least a patent pending, will not be accepted.
Licensing your invention is a lot easier if you can show that it’s selling. That means you have to produce a small quantity of your product. Nice idea – until you learn that a plastic injection mold costs $25,000.
Now what? Fortunately, there are options. You just have to know where to look.
Small-quantity manufacturing lies between rapid prototyping processes and volume production. To discover the processes in the low- to mid-quantity range, visit www.jobshop.com. Also search —job shop shows — on Google.com for contract manufacturers, there were about 1,000 references last time I looked.
You have entered the innovation market taking your first steps. You had an idea, which matured to become definite enough to be characterized as an invention. Now what do you do? Many inventors will find a patent attorney or patent agent that they will work with, and still others will try and represent themselves. Representing yourself can be a dangerous undertaking because drafting a patent application and engaging in patent prosecution (i.e., working the patent examiner to identify patentable subject matter) can be a lot more difficult than it otherwise seems. There are many pitfalls and archaic rules to navigate. But even if you are going to choose to work with a patent attorney or patent agent you should do whatever you can to understand the tasks associated with obtaining a patent. The more informed you are as an inventor the better the resulting patent. The more you know the better the information you can provide to your patent attorney or patent agent, which only makes for a better, stronger, more detailed and broader patent once issued.
One big mistake I see inventors make frequently relates to understanding the full scope of their invention. This is not to suggest that inventors do not understand their invention, quite to the contrary. In my experience when an inventor has an invention (and not just an idea) the inventor will know what they have done in great detail. Sometimes there is a challenge to convey everything to the patent attorney or patent agent, but the inventor has that information it just needs to be liberated from the inventor and put on paper.
So you have an idea and want to get a patent? There are a number of things that you need to know about the invention and patent process that can help you focus your efforts and know what obstacles lay in front of you.
The first thing to know is that you cannot patent an idea. Many people will have great ideas, but will not be able to put that idea into a package appropriate for a patent because there is no invention, only a concept. To be sure, the idea is the all critical first step in the invention process. After you come up with the idea or concept you now need to put together a game plan on how to carry that idea through. The idea and game plan together form what the law calls conception. Conception is an important concept in patent law because in the United States it is the first person to invent that CAN ultimately receive the exclusive rights on an invention.
I capitalize, bold, italicize and underline the word “can” for a specific reason. There is a tremendous misconception among some inventors that merely being the first to invent guarantees that they will be able to receive the patent ahead of all others. This is terribly incorrect and almost certain to lead inventors to make decisions that will compromise their ability to receive any patent. First, you absolutely will need legally admissible proof of what you invented and when you conceived, which many if not most inventors will not have. Second, even if you are the first to invent you could be statutorily barred from receiving a patent if anyone (including you) used the invention publicly for more than 12 months before a patent application was filed, or anyone (including you) published information about the invention more than 12 months before a patent application was filed. In a nutshell, inventors who lie and wait believing they were the first to invent and can swoop in later will find that their lack of understanding of the patent laws has almost certainly worked to prevent them from receiving a patent.
Like anything in life worth doing, the path of an independent inventor from initial stage idea to making money can be challenging. If it were easy then everyone would be a rich inventor. Luckily for those who have the determination to pursue innovation as a business it is not easy enough for anyone to do, which means that there are opportunities available. One of the keys to successfully making money as an inventor is understanding that those who are successful operate in a business responsible way, and this requires closely monitoring expenditure of funds. While you may want to rush out and build a prototype you need to be careful. There is nothing like the show and tell of a working prototype to lure investors, partners and licensing deals, but inventing is better viewed as a marathon than a 100 yard dash, and preserving capital is absolutely essential if you are going to be successful.