If you've ever had a brilliant idea for an invention, you've probably wondered if you could get a patent and make some money from it. Here's how to go about it.
For Saul Palder, frustration was the mother of invention.
"One day, I was making a big pot of soup," recalls Palder, 90, an accomplished home cook. "I like to give things away, so I went to the cupboard to find containers. It was a mess."
That mess gave rise to his big idea: a spinning organizer that holds 24 containers and 24 lids, which he would dub the Smart Spin. He quickly got to work creating a prototype at a nearby carpentry shop and applied for a patent, which he received in 2003. The entire process, from initial idea to patent, took just over 12 months.
"I went from bum to hero in one year," says Boston-based Palder, who launched Smart Spin in his late 70s. Once he found a company to license the product, he stepped back from manufacturing and marketing efforts. His invention went on to sell more than 7 million units for about $20 each. Inventors' royalties are usually between 3 and 7 percent of wholesale revenues.
First, do a search on Google Patents or the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website (uspto.gov) to make sure the product you've dreamed up doesn't already exist. Once that hurdle is cleared, you can get down to the task of fleshing out your idea with detailed drawings and a prototype.
Creating a clear set of drawings forces you to get specific about how your invention will work. Michael Kondoudis, a patent attorney based in Washington, says clients often come to him with ideas, and he tells them to come back after they make some drawings. Otherwise, he says, "An idea is just an idea."
In addition to drawings, a prototype can prove your idea works in the real world. This doesn't have to mean spending a lot of money. John Pfanstiehl, 67, of Indian Rocks Beach, Fla., created ProGauge "after my sister bought a used car and it was really rusted through." Designed to help used-car buyers detect damage hidden beneath layers of paint, it soon became the fastest selling paint-thickness gauge in the world. Pfanstiehl made the first prototypes in his kitchen, molding parts with a frying pan.
Inventors often use the prototyping process to tinker with their creations and make them more marketable. Palder's original prototype, made out of wood, didn't spin. When a friend in the restaurant industry told him it was too hard to get to the containers in the back, "we came up with the spinning idea," Palder says.
But be careful who gets to see that prototype. Prior to submitting a patent application, you should reveal your idea only to trusted associates—or obtain nondisclosure agreements before seeking input. Once you share your idea publicly, Kondoudis says, you must file a patent within one year or waive your patent rights.
After you've got a clear set of drawings, you are ready to file a patent application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). More and more older adults have been filing for patents, says Anthony Knight, director of stakeholder engagement for the USPTO, and they often don't realize all of the resources that are available to help them.
The USPTO website contains an extensive resource center to guide applicants through the process, which includes submitting relevant drawings and detailed descriptions of the invention. The patent office also offers an Inventors Assistance Center with a toll-free number (800-786-9199) staffed by experienced patent professionals. Another valuable resource is the United Inventors Association of America, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that serves about 100 inventor clubs around the country. Annual dues are typically less than $50 a year, and members offer one another support and camaraderie.
Knight warns inventors to steer clear of third-party websites, which take your money without giving much (or anything) in return. Before agreeing to work with any company, he suggests doing online research to see if others have complained about it.
Patent application fees start at $65 for a provisional application, $400 for most individuals, $800 for nonprofits and small businesses, and $1,600 for regular applications, not including the costs of hiring a patent lawyer. After the application is submitted, it takes about a year and a half to hear back on the initial approval decision and then about six more months for a final decision. The process can move faster if the person filing is age 65 or over and submits a request to be fast-tracked.
Given the complexity of the application process, the USPTO recommends that anyone submitting a patent application work with a lawyer. "You want to find an attorney who has some familiarity with your technology," says Kondoudis—whether it's chemistry, astrophysics or another field. Lawyer fees can add up to $10,000 or more, so be sure to ask for all fees to be explained in writing before proceeding. Pro bono assistance is available and can be found through the USPTO website.
After your application is submitted ("patent pending"), you can begin openly shopping your idea around for licensing or manufacturing partners. Once it's granted, the patent will allow you to fend off copycats, as Palder had to do. When a company infringed on his Smart Spin patent in the mid-2000s, he sued, eventually accepting an undisclosed settlement.
Palder is now working on bringing Smart Spin back to the market with some yet-to-be-revealed improvements. With patent in hand and partnerships in place, he can focus on his favorite pastime: coming up with new ideas.
5 Patent Mistakes to Avoid
1. Handing money over to a company that promises to help you patent your invention.
It's tempting to avoid the headache of a patent submission and instead pay a third party to handle the details for you, but patent lawyers warn that you can lose your money (and patent rights) with this approach.
2. Submitting a patent idea for something too similar to an existing product.
It's not enough to search for similar words; you also need to browse online through the submitted drawings of existing inventions.
3. Sharing your excitement with friends.
It's easy to get so swept up in enthusiasm for your new idea that you tell your inner circle. But once an idea is made public, you can't patent it.
4. Forgetting about marketing.
Even a patent-worthy invention isn't worth much if no one knows about it. Be sure to develop a marketing plan along with your application so you can eventually make sales.
5. Trying to do everything yourself.
Even people with incredible ideas that get turned into million-dollar products often need a little help along the way, in terms of professionals who can help navigate the lengthy process. In addition to legal assistance during the patent application stage, successful inventors often team up with production and distribution experts, too.