The Invention Process: Moving Forward One Idea at a Time
Tim Abbott – At one point or another in almost everyone’s life they’ve had an idea for an invention that they thought would not only be a good idea, but might make them money. The invention process can seem like an enormous mountain of unknown that is impossible to climb, but it is in fact a series of foothills that is simply a process with a beginning, an end, and is every human being’s birthright to explore.
It has been said that in 1899, Charles Holland Duell, the Commissioner of the United States Patent and Trademark Office turned in his resignation saying, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” I have heard this quote many times in my inventing career and always believed it to be true until I did the research for this blog. I would like to take this opportunity to help clear the name of a great man who lived during an incredible period of time in our country’s industrial history. In fact, Charles Holland Duell was quoted saying” In my opinion, all previous advances in the various lines of invention will appear totally insignificant when compared to those which the present century will witness. I almost wish that I might live my life over again to see the wonders which are at the threshold.” How right he was!
Just think what our lives would’ve been like today if in 1899 everything that could have been invented, had been invented. For example, we would all be walking around with little pieces of toilet paper stuck to our bodies since King Camp Gillette invented the double edge safety razor in 1901. Chances are many of us would not be in the greatest of moods this summer since Willis Carrier invented the air-conditioner in 1902, although it would have made Schulyer Wheeler pretty happy since he invented the electric fan in 1886. It also would be very difficult to see the world because there would be no air travel since the Wright brothers invented the first gas powered and manned airplane in 1903. In 1904 Benjamin Holt invented the tractor which allowed our growing population to be fed. In 1905 Albert Einstein published the theory of relativity and made the famous equation, E = mc2 which allowed science to leap forward with great strides. And last, but not least, in 1906 Lee Deforest invented the electronic amplifying tube (triode) which in theory is still being used today in the very monitor that you’re reading this on!
If you are keeping track, I just mentioned six inventions (okay, 5 inventions and one theory) in six short years of human history that have completely changed our lives. Now, let’s look ahead 106 years to the present time. It is literally the millions of inventions, some big and some small, some developed in laboratories, some developed in people’s basements and garages that has brought us to the technological empire that we all enjoy today as humans. Through all of this, the process has not changed and I would like to it share with you.
1. Determine Whether Your Invention Makes Sense to Pursue
- Is your invention something that truly makes people’s lives easier and would be useful to them?
- Is your invention something that a lot of people need? Inventing something that only a few people can use can be an indicator that the invention may not make sense to pursue.
- I believe in doing patent searches early on. Go to www.USPTO.gov or Google patent search to determine within reason if someone else has already invented your idea. Write down the patent numbers of anything that is remotely similar. You will need this later if you apply for a patent.
- Do a great deal of research and look for other products on the market that may address the same problem as your invention. Remember, just because there isn’t any competition doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. There may be a reason that no one is competing against you.
- Be sure that you don’t put yourself in financial hardship to pursue your invention. Follow your dreams, but be sensible about it.
2. Build a Functional Prototype
- Just remember, it doesn’t have to be pretty, it just needs to work!
- Build your prototype out of any materials that you have handy. Your prototype does not need to be built from the material that it will end up being made of.
- Test your prototype and watch how it works. Make lots of notes during this process and think of ways to make it better.
- Continue to refine your prototype and make adjustments until it is functioning exactly the way you want. Remember, at this point it can be so ugly that you wouldn’t even buy it!
3. Protect Your Invention
- Whereas some people might advise a person to manufacture a near market ready prototype at this point, I believe that this is the point where you should get some type of patent protection on your idea, especially with the new” first to file ” law that will come into effect early next year.
- Find a local patent attorney if at all possible to help you through this process. It can be a little confusing the first time a person applies for intellectual property and I’ve always found it easier to access local professionals rather than someone across the country.
- Your attorney will advise you which direction to go, but it might be possible to file a provisional patent application which will allow you to have patent pending status for 12 months to work on your invention and show it to companies who might be interested. Provisional patent applications also cost a lot less money than applying for a utility patent.
4. Manufacture a Near Market Ready Prototype
- At this point you will want to find a manufacturer who can build your product from start to finish. Some manufacturers are more equipped to work with inventors on market ready prototyping than others. Rapid prototype printing has made it much easier to make custom plastic parts for new products over the last 10 years.
- Refer to your local Small Business Development Center to help you find local manufacturers who can help you through this process.
- Building a custom manufactured prototype can be costly, but have the manufacturer give you a quote for full production runs in large quantities so that you can determine what your manufacturing costs will be.
- A good rule of thumb is that if a product can be manufactured and packaged for five dollars, it will wholesale at around $10, and retail at $20. Determine what your product should retail at and then back into that number dividing it in half each time, 20, 10, 5 and so forth. If you can back into your retail number and manufacture your product at the number you come up with, then it is probable that there will be enough margin in the product for everyone to make money along the way.
5. Which Way Should I Go?
- Every inventor comes to a crossroads where they must determine whether they want to manufacture their product themselves, have someone else manufacture the product, but they will do the sales, marketing and distribution, or license the product to a manufacturer and collect royalties.
- Many inventors fall into the category of being innovators and opportunists. Where innovators and opportunists are incredibly creative people, they seldom have the ability or the personality to run a day-to-day business. It’s not a bad thing; it’s just the way we’re wired! Most people who run manufacturing businesses successfully are builders and specialists. That being said, think very carefully about how you would like to proceed. If you do decide to manufacture your invention, be sure to engage your local Small Business Development Center for guidance.
- If you decide to license your product, be sure that your patent protection is in place and that you have done all of your homework. Be sure that you know exactly what your product will cost to manufacture, package and ship and know how big your market is. Then research to see who the key players in your market are and approach them with your product. At this point, I highly recommend having your patent attorney involved to help you negotiate a license agreement.
The invention process can be exciting and fun, but always remember that it will be a lot of hard work also. The process isn’t for everyone, but if you follow it through to the end, you will find that it can be a life-changing experience and that your biggest reward will be the knowledge that you gain from it.