Subscribe to our Blog

Individual inventors: clearing the hurdles

When we watch politicians talk about what makes America great, they often say something about American ingenuity. One example that easily comes to mind is Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak making the first Apple computer in a garage. Now, Apple is the most valuable tech company in the world.

I get lots of calls from individuals who have an idea for a great new product or service and are looking to take the next step. Lots of these folks have different day jobs and are just looking to sell the idea. What hurdles do they face?

The first hurdle many people face with their idea is it is just that: an idea. This is one of the most common misconceptions about patents — patents protect inventions, not ideas. You have to describe an actual physical product or service in a patent application. That is, you have to know all the components it will take to build the invention and what the function of each component is. A person without a clear picture of how to make a product out of the idea doesn’t have enough information to get a patent.

The second hurdle is that many companies aren’t willing to invest in a new idea unless one of two things happens. First, you can sign a complete release letting them use your idea without paying you anything. This is like sending an email to your favorite software company and asking them to put a new feature in the next version of their software. They may do it, but you would have no claim to any money from the feature.

The second thing companies look for is a patent. Not a patent pending, but an actual patent. But why? A patent pending is not a guarantee that the government will grant a patent. Without a patent, the company would have nothing to protect the idea from copying by others. A company could hire a patent attorney to look at the pending patent application, but this requires a pretty significant cost, and many companies would rather let the individual get the patent first.

The third hurdle is that patents take a while to obtain and, for individuals who are pursuing one outside of a routine business research and development budget, they are also fairly expensive. However, the hard cost of a patent is small compared to the investment of time and money it takes to market a successful product. In order to get a company to buy a patent, an inventor needs to be prepared to make prototypes, go to trade shows, and pitch the product to as many people in the industry as possible.

Like any good investment, a patent is a long-term project that requires patience. It also requires lots of hard work. For people with good ideas and a clear marketing plan, a patent can be a great way to start a new business or to expand an existing one.