Business owners know that ideas are the lifeblood of a successful company. Those inspired discoveries that lead to inventions are some of the most vital.
As National Inventors Month comes to a close, I spoke to quite a few business leaders about how to determine the viability of innovative ideas, protect them and get them to market.
"Inventors are inherently problem solvers, and business owners deal with problems all day long," says Gina Waldhorn, president of Quirky, a collaborative online invention community. "With necessity being the mother of invention, business owners are devising new products, services and software that help them run more efficient and productive businesses."
Business Owners as Inventors
Entrepreneurs are often inventors, especially when it comes to technology, agrees Vinay Tannan, senior manager of global partnerships and licensing at RTI International. (RTI provides research and development and technical services to commercial and government clients. )
"It's not uncommon for business owners' products or entire business platforms to be inventions," he says.
Such is the case for Erin Finegold, founder and CEO of StingRay Shields.
StingRay Shields is a patented technology designed to reduce and redirect wireless radiation away from the head and hand during cellphone use.
"I became concerned about cell phone radiation several years ago when my young niece was playing with my phone against her head for quite a while, and I felt the heat from the phone when she gave it back to me," says Finegold. "I researched studies on cell phones, which revealed the potentially significant dangers of cell phone radiation. That prompted me to invent a durable, lightweight antenna system that minimizes radiation exposure."
Two Types of Inventions
"There are two kinds of inventions—improvements on existing products and entirely new innovations," says Eric Lupton, co-founder of L-Squared Technologies.
"Improvements are easier to market because people are familiar with the ideas," he says. "Completely new products are more challenging, but offer more opportunity for the inventor."
—Gina Waldhorn, president, Quirky
Lupton's invention focuses on an unfortunate reality with a whole new approach to a solution.
"L-Squared Technologies has developed the silver-bullet solution to pediatric vehicular heatstroke deaths—children dying in cars after being abandoned, intentionally or unintentionally," says Lupton. "The ... technology eschews the idea that reminders are the solution and instead focuses on saving children by ... cooling the car while simultaneously alerting bystanders that help is needed."
Because of the constant breakthroughs in technology, inventions in this area tend to be new.
"In the tech space, reinventing and disrupting is a key component to entrepreneurship," says Daniel Putterman, director at Kogniz, which produces the AICam. This surveillance camera uses artificial intelligence (AI) to identify people and threats in real-time.
Inventions that greatly improve on existing products can also be successful, believes Kristian Tapaninaho, founder and CEO of Uuni, a portable wood-fired outdoor oven.
"I created Uuni to solve a problem," says Tapaninaho. "To make great pizza, I needed a wood-fired oven that could reach double the temperature of a domestic oven. Products on the market were large and expensive. I had ideas for how to create a portable wood-fired oven, so I sketched it out and prototyped it. The result was Uuni, which heats up to 932 degrees F in 10 minutes and makes incredible pizza in 60 seconds."
Steps to Successfully Launching Your Invention
Once you've come up with an idea you think fills a need, there are several steps to see an invention to fruition.
1. Market analysis
"Market analysis is a critical first step to understanding the whitespace opportunity for your invention," says Neel Premkumar, founder and CEO of FORTO, a ready-to-drink coffee shot.
"It's best if market analysis includes estimates of the number of potential customers, pricing, potential revenue per customer and a possible distribution model," he says.
Premkumar also advises creating a working prototype and getting customer feedback so you can understand concerns and compliments for your invention.
Product market fit is essential, believes Adam Dodds, CEO and founder of Freetrade, a next-generation investment app providing users with free stock trading.
"You can create something based on a smart insight or a nice-to-have feature," Dodds says, "but if it doesn't solve problems and add value on a deep level, then your company won't be around for very long."
Surveys work well to determine if inventions are compelling, suggests Waldhorn of Quirky.
"You don't need to describe the product in detail," she explains. "In broad strokes, present the problem you're solving and how consumers would receive the benefit. For example, ask if they'd be interested in a dog leash that turns into a toy."
The next step is to determine if there's market potential.
"You may have designed the world's most amazing stroller for triplets," Waldhorn says, "but even if every single mom bought your product, you'd max out at selling 1,300 strollers a year, given the number of triplet births."
"Nice ideas that solve only a few people's problems result in failed businesses," adds Nigel Parker, CEO of RashEndZ. "The wider the problem, the more people your product can help."
Parker's product was designed in response to a neonatal nurse's request for a skin-aeration liner that can be inserted inside a diaper to keep the skin dry and less likely to develop bedsores. The technology was expanded to incontinence garments.
2. Intellectual property protection
Once you determine that your inventions are worth pursuing, it's time to protect those ideas.
According to patent law attorney Anthony Fussner of intellectual property law firm Harness Dickey, the sooner you protect your ideas, the better.
"Because intellectual property is oftentimes the most valuable asset of a business, it's important to begin the process of securing IP protection immediately," says Fussner. "A patent is a monopoly or right to exclude others from making, using, selling, offering for sale or importing the patented invention for a limited period of time in exchange for a detailed disclosure of the invention."
At this stage, except for market analysis, keep quiet about your invention, advises Mary Tiffin, founder and president of Mangata, which creates wearable safety lights.
"If you have an invention, it's best to keep it 'under wraps' until you have secured proper legal counsel and the various protections," she says.
Fussner explains that the U.S. currently uses a first-to-file patent system, which means that the person who files for a patent first holds the patent, regardless of the date of the actual invention. And many inventors and companies take that step to be the first.
"Patenting and protecting your inventions is urgent," says Scott Relf, CEO and co-founder of mobile photo-sharing app Pikmobile.
"It's a difficult, lengthy process to get patents for inventions approved," says Relf, who filed a patent application in 2013 that was approved in January 2018. "In addition to taking five years, it cost me $50,000. Throughout the process there was no certainty that the patent would ever be approved. Our company essentially has a patent on the future of social media—paid subscriptions in the newsfeed. It looks like all of this time and money will be worth it in the end."
Copyrights and Trademarks
There are two other methods of protecting IP that are much less costly and time consuming.
"Copyrights and trademarks both protect intellectual property, but they protect different things," says Ross Kimbarovsky, founder and CEO of crowdspring, a marketplace for creative and design services. (He should know: Before founding crowdspring, Kimbarovsky spent 24 years as an intellectual property litigation lawyer.)
"Copyright protects creative works such as writing, art, music, movies, video games, software code, choreography and architectural designs," Kimbarovsky explains. "Trademarks are names, logos, sounds, shapes, colors and even smells that distinguish the source of goods or services of one party from those of another party. For example, a computer software program may be copyrighted while the name of the software can be trademarked."
Tips for Taking Your Invention to Market
There are many steps to launching a new product once you've determined it's a viable idea. Here are some of the top items to keep in mind.
"The route you pursue for launching your product should be in part dictated by the size of the prize and your appetite for risk," says Waldhorn. "If you're ready to bet the farm on your inventions, raise funds, invest your savings or crowdfund so you can manufacture and market the product."
If you're not ready for such an investment, a licensing deal may be more appropriate, continues Waldhorn.
"This involves licensing your invention to a manufacturer or big brand in return for a royalty on every unit sold," she explains.
Launching on Kickstarter worked well for Uuni founder Tapaninaho.
"Our campaign captured the imagination of customers and media around the world, so we were lucky to have an international customer base from the outset," he explains. "We'd already sourced a factory to produce our product, so when the campaign ended after a month, we made our first run of Uunis. Orders kept coming in, so we ramped up our production plans and worked hard to meet demand."
Whatever you do, keep the faith, advises Lupton.
"The best inventions are often thought to be terrible or crazy ideas by the inventor's friends and family," he says. "Don't let other people discourage what you know to be true. At the same time, if you try and the market rejects your product, accept reality and consider adjustments."
Work hard and stay focused on your goal, adds Tiffin. "Sometimes it takes a long time to become an overnight sensation."
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