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How 3 Black Inventors Got Patents — and You Could, Too

Despite obstacles, these innovators turned their ideas into profitable inventions

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Inventing a product unique enough to earn a patent can be one path to starting a successful business. But Black entrepreneurs file for patents at one-third the rate of white inventors, according to a study from VentureWell, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting science and technology innovators.

While there are several historical reasons why African Americans been have had less access to the federal patent process, there also are many examples of how Black inventors overcame those barriers. Despite obstacles, Black inventors have found ways to touch the lives of millions with products that still are used every day, from synthesizing chemicals for medical treatments to creating a better way to win water-gun fights.

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Here are the stories of how three Black inventors earned patents, along with a few tips that might help you earn one, too. To learn more about patents, you can watch a recording of an AARP and U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) webinar on Protecting Your Business Through Trademarks and Patents.

Finding an Affordable Way to Treat Glaucoma

Dr. Percy Julian
Chemist Percy Julian, who held more than 130 patents, received the Decalogue Society award in 1951.
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Born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1899, Percy Lavon Julian was an American researcher who held over 130 chemical patents. Julian overcame segregation to become a leader in synthetic chemistry, modernizing the affordable mass production of plant-based medicinal compounds. Most notably, he developed a process to synthesize the drug physostigmine that previously had only been available from its natural source, the Calabar bean, according to the USPTO. His pioneering research made the chemical readily available for the treatment of glaucoma.

He also invented a process to extract  soybean proteins that could be employed for a variety of uses, such as a coating for paper or as a fire-retardant foam used widely in World War II. In 1953, he founded Julian Laboratories, which he sold in 1961 for more than $2 million. In 1990, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Percy was 57 when his first patent was granted.

Protecting Your Home With an Inventive Idea

Born in New York in 1922, Marie Van Brittan Brown was a nurse whose long hours and late-night shifts spurred an invention widely used today: the two-way home security system. Brown and her husband, an electronics technician, were concerned about the crime in their neighborhood and the slow police response. In 1969, they successfully patented a security system that used a camera with a live video feed to monitors along with two-way microphones.

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Browns’ invention created the foundation of the modern-day home security system and has been cited in an additional 35 patent applications.

Brown was 47 when her invention was patented.

Soaking Your Way to Success

Lonnie Johnson reminds us it’s never too late to pivot and start a second career. Johnson built his first robot at 14, earning him the childhood nickname The Professor. As an adult, he joined the U.S. Air Force and later worked at NASA on the historic Galileo mission that sent an unmanned spacecraft to Jupiter.

But it was Johnson’s groundbreaking, accidental invention that would cement him as one of the most prominent Black inventors in history: the Super Soaker water gun. As Johnson told Popular Mechanics, “I was working on a heat pump that used water as a working fluid, and I made some jet pumps for it. I accidentally shot a stream of water across a bathroom where I was doing the experiment and thought to myself, This would make a great [water] gun.”

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While it took seven years of setbacks and challenges before the first toy made it to stores, the Super Soaker has sold over 250 million units since it hit the shelves in 1990. Hasbro later licensed the invention, earning both Johnson and the toymaker over $1 billion in sales.

Johnson was 37 when his patent was granted, and 41 when it launched.

Should You Patent Your Product?

If your product is unique in design or function, you should consider patent protection. However, while the USPTO is working actively to close the racial gap in the patent system, not every product qualifies for or benefits from patent protection.

First and foremost, a patent granted by USPTO applies only to commercial products within the United States and its territories. Secondly, patents are divided into two categories: utility and design. It’s critical to understand if your design is ornamental or functional before starting the patent process. Third, if you are considering filing a patent, be aware that by doing so, your confidential designs are made public and may be vulnerable to international competitors. For this reason, many well-known companies opt out of the publicly disclosed patent process and instead choose trade secret protection, especially for commercially valuable information such as recipes, devices and formulas.

Depending on your product, a provisional patent might also be a better first step than the capital investment and legal technicalities of a design or utility patent. A provisional patent can be a fraction of the cost and offers protection for 12 months while you test different iterations of your product and/or market fit. In order for the provisional patent to mature into a design or utility patent, the inventor must file a nonprovisional application within the one-year coverage term; otherwise the project is considered abandoned.

Are you an inventor? Visit the Small Business Resource Center’s 50+ Black-Owned Business page for dedicated information and funding resources to turn your idea into a scalable prototype.