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Start Your Business Startup Basics

Bringing Your Invention to Market: The Patent Process

Who knew that inventing a better way to package pats of butter would be worth more than $80 million? Perhaps Sanford Redmond didn’t, but he had the foresight to patent his 1959 invention, protecting it from copycats and, therefore, maximizing its value.

Getting a patent may not be easy, but it is essential to inventors who want to bring their idea to reality.

The idea may be the easiest part of a bona fide invention. Identify some dissatisfaction, some functional shortcoming, and then brainstorm a solution or enhancement. Challenges arise when inventors must commit to their vision, with money and trust. Shortchanging an idea by not protecting it can prove disastrous.

“You have to decide whether the idea is worth investing in ,” said Bret Strouss, president of the American Society of Inventors. He said that industry estimates indicate that only 1 percent to 3 percent of all patents earn back their costs. In 2005, an official with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office said that only 0.2 percent of patents are “commercially viable.”

There are three main ways to file a patent. They are: using an attorney, using a commercial invention promoter or doing it yourself. Each has distinct advantages and disadvantages.

Hiring an attorney

Hiring an attorney will give you the best opportunity to make sure you have covered all of your bases in the patent process. But it will cost you more in up-front costs.

“Do it right and do it early. It’s not worth skimping on,” said Michelle Basil, an attorney with Nutter McClennen & Fish in Boston. She and Lisa Adams, another partner in the firm and a registered patent attorney, estimated the cost of an application is between $5,000–$20,000, depending upon the complexity of the invention, if you use an attorney. This is significantly more than what it would cost to file on your own.

However, Adams warns, an attorney can help you be thorough. That is especially important when it comes to filing your patent application.

“Terminology is everything,” Adams said. “Anything you say in a patent application can and will come back to haunt you.” She said that it’s more than just getting through the process. Inventors need to have an intellectual property strategy that goes beyond the application. ”It’s all about building the picket fence” of protection around your invention, she said. “How are competitors going to design around your invention?”

Choose your partner carefully

Another way to bring a product to market is to use a commercial invention promoter. But Bret Strouss urged inventors to be careful about choosing a partner. “To do it right,” he said, “you have to do some homework.” He noted two companies—The Big Idea and Edison Nation—that both have good reputations.

These companies provide a host of services: connecting inventors with licensees, market research, viability counseling. In return for their services, they often want a piece of the profits.

“You have to be careful about what you’re giving up,” attorney Adams said. She explained that investors might also feel more comfortable with a reputable firm behind the invention.

Going it alone

And, of course, inventors can do it themselves with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which can be quite tempting for self-reliant individuals working on a tight budget.
The basic patent filing fees with the government run several hundred dollars.

The federal patent office offers a useful decision matrix along with a wealth of information. It is interesting to note that in the matrix, the government recommends using a registered attorney or patent agent, which is an engineer with significant patent experience.

Strouss cited David Pressman’s book “Patent It Yourself” as an excellent guide on the process. But Strouss learned a couple things with his first invention attempt years ago: “It’s easier to invent as a team than it is as an individual.”