Inventors Are Coming Out of the Closet
Jim Correll, director Fab Lab ICC at Independence Community College, Independence Kansas
As people in the community come to Fab Lab ICC, making things and getting to know us, we find that many of them are saying "I've had this idea for years about a new invention and I've never known what to do with it." They are finding our Lab a safe environment where they can share their ideas without fear or ridicule or the threat of anyone stealing the ideas. Every week or two we are meeting with such members to map out a plan to develop prototypes, investigate patents and validating their markets. The path to market is as different as the inventors and the inventions they bring. Many think the patent is the first step in the process. Sometimes yes, but many times no.
A Patent Is Not Market Validation
Being awarded a patent after coming up with a new idea or invention and navigating through a long and expensive process is often viewed at the "gold standard" of the legitimacy of the idea or invention. For many new inventors, the goal of patenting the idea or invention has been at the top of the list. The thinking is that the patent will both validate the idea and protect the inventor from the theft or copying of the idea. While there are no clear-cut guidelines pertaining to when or even if to patent a new idea or invention, the patent should almost never be at the top of the list.
Government employees at the patent office deeming the new idea worthy of a patent, does not necessarily translate to market validation; that anyone wants to buy the new product. A local banker tells a story of an out-of-state inventor that spent his life savings and mortgaged his house to develop and patent a more accurate rain gage--it leaned into the wind to catch more of the drops. He had paid for scientific data proving his device was more accurate. The only problem was that no one cared enough to be willing to buy it.
A Patent Does Not Offer Iron-Clad Protection
Contrary to many beliefs, from a practical standpoint, the patent does not offer the iron-clad protection against theft and copying for several reasons. First, while the cost of getting the patent--ranging from a few thousand to $60,000--is high, the cost of litigation to stop a patent infringement could be ten times that amount. Second, many times clever copiers can create a product that performs the same function, with just enough design changes to avoid infringement.
Some Inventions Go to the Grave With the Inventors
I know of at least one and maybe two inventors that have put their projects on the shelf because they don’t have the money to apply for a patent. It's too bad that they may never know whether their product would add value for anyone in the marketplace or not. Maybe it would be better to develop what we call a minimum viable product that would be functional enough to test market to see if anyone wants it even at a small risk of someone "stealing" the idea.
A good patent attorney is more of a patent counselor, not just taking money to mechanically apply for the patent on your behalf, but helping you decide when and if to patent at all. We have a relationship with just such an attorney. There is also a little known option to "self-patent." We have a relationship with the regional patent office in Denver and there is a separate patent process for inventors than for patent attorneys. We have a new relationship with a patent consultant in Tulsa, not an attorney, who has helped dozens of clients navigate through the "self-patent" process. Our best relationship is with local inventor, Doug Misch who has several patents to his credit and has brought dozens of products to market.
Come On Out of the Closet
The first step for any inventor is to feel free to "come out of the closet." Fab Lab ICC is a place where you'll find openness to new ideas and a growing network of members and coaches eager to help develop the potential of you and your invention. You're not alone.
Jim Correll is the director of Fab Lab ICC at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship on the campus of Independence Community College. He can be reached at (620) 252-5349, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @jimcorrellks.