Ever have an idea for a patent? Did you grow up hearing the stories of great American inventors like Franklin, Bell, or Edison? These men of grand vision and passion created truly transformative technologies. They triumphed over adversity for the benefit of humanity.
If you are excited by the very act of creating, then you are similarly afflicted. Before embarking on the journey, prepare. I will tell you what I know: it's also cathartic. This series will discuss the process from concept to commercialization from my own experience. This article covers some initial steps.
In my 27 years of manufacturing experience, I have worked for Fortune 100 companies in production, project or operations management, and I own a manufacturing company. My line is precision machining, wire EDM. We specialize in precision optical and work piece alignment equipment; quick detachable mechanical devices that return to absolute zero. I hold two U.S. patents and have another application through the European Union soon to issue as a patent.
For purposes of discussion, let's say that you have envisioned an original mechanical device made of machined steel. Because you have designed something new, you will be applying for a Utility patent.
First, do some patent searches online. Be thorough and maybe save yourself some trouble. Is it already out there? Was it subconsciously suggested, perhaps based on or similar to something you have seen before?
You will need to reveal your product to others so begin a provisional patent as soon as you are confident your concept is viable. Make sure it is well written, everything in your eventual patent application connects back to this. Add pictures, sketches, etc. Costs swing from $100 on line to $1000+ using a lawyer. Get use to this. A provisional patent is only good for a year. It gives you some time to plan and start marketing activities but practice discretion. Prepare a simple confidentiality agreement.
Talent costs. Patent attorneys are not only lawyers, they are also degreed engineers. They translate your vision into legal speak. Choose carefully. What kind of services do they offer? Marquee firms are formidable. This is useful but they can also be aloof. A small firm might be cheaper but may lack resources.
Plan your patent application. Patents take time. They are good for 20 years from date of issue. Your patent literature will contain summaries, specifications, abstracts, drawings and a number of detailed supporting claims. Claims are the strength of your patent. They define the field of invention and explain how your device is different considering the prior art or what has come before, in that field. Outline everything. Describe the background, the problem you are solving, how your device solves the problem, how it functions and a part by part analysis including geometry and purpose.
Also, anticipate what is called the “design around”. This is how an entity could slightly alter your concept to evade patent enforcement. Add the potential alterations to your patent application for a further measure of protection.
A patent examiner will filter through your application determining the validity of your claims in comparison to the prior art and issued patents. Claims are either rejected or allowed. Rejection means a patent examiner feels other patents trump one, more or all your claims. It is a challenge to the originality of your idea or its description known as an “office action”. You and your lawyer then need to counter argue and more clearly define your claims and the differences from existing patents to the examiner’s satisfaction. If not, it all stops here. No refunds.
Office actions are both good and bad. It’s a form of vetting before your patent is granted. More clearly defining your idea limits the scope of your invention but the more office actions you win the stronger your patent becomes. However, the work involved with an office action and the patent process as a whole is costly.
For example, I began my first patent application in 2006. I started with a large firm charging $380 an hour. Then my original attorney went to a different firm. She is skilled, I trust her and I didn’t wish to pay her replacement to get up to speed so I moved my business to the new firm. Shortly thereafter the new firm raised their rates to $500 per hour! After a few office actions that patent issued in 2008. I started the next application in 2007 and in the interim my attorney moved yet again and so did I. After numerous office actions the second patent issued at the end of 2012! I still have another soon to issue in Europe that I started in 2007 as well. I think you get the point.
You want to sell this right? Being able to describe it is critical. You need to field questions from those that don’t initially understand you and win adherents. Refine the message and prepare a presentation.
Seek a good business incubator. For a monthly fee you receive space, admin support, perhaps some design or shop access and strategic guidance. Rates depend on capability. Most are attached to colleges or universities. Many are well funded but also come with the attendant enrollment pressures and egos intrinsic in academia. Still, surround yourself with creative people. Sit in on some workshops. Have the moderators walked the walk? I use incubators for networking and business intel. Remember, you are always one contact away from a breakthrough!
Equally important, you need an incubator that has rapid prototyping capabilities, additive technologies or a good machine shop. You might be able to make a deal for small production runs. Now you are holding something in your hand. Are the models generated sufficient for rigorous testing? Choose your criteria. Break one. Re-evaluate and incorporate revisions in your patent documents if appropriate.
Welcome, friend; this is only the beginning. I’m not trying to discourage but prepare you for the odyssey. I want you to succeed. You can do it. You will regret not having tried. You are building the best device of its type in the world. Next we will discuss the manufacture of your vision.