Developing your intellectual property into a viable business opportunity is a complex proposition! In this series of posts, Porticos co-founder and President, Greg Patterson shares his insights on navigating the process. First written ten years ago, these posts revisit (and update) Greg’s original content for a new decade of product development.
So during your recent call with your Aunt Sue in Oshkosh, you were sharing with her one of your recent innovative product ideas. Knowing your passion for ideas and inventions, Sue shared with you the story of her neighbor’s grandson Joe, who had a great idea for a new product. It seems that after sketching his brainchild on the back of a napkin, he simply got in touch with the right guy at the Acme company, and will soon be a bonafide bazillionaire on the royalties. Nothing but piña coladas and palm trees from here out for Lucky Joe.
Now you’re a smart and resourceful guy, so you think, “Wow, if Lucky Joe can strike it rich with that idea, I can certainly take my Super-Widget all the way!” So all you have to do now is draw up your idea, write down a few notes, find the right guy at Acme or their competitors, and go open your new bank account to stash the fortune.
Well, at the risk of bursting your creative bubble, transforming your great idea into another Aunt Sue story isn’t as easy as it may sound. For every success story you hear, there are scores of typically untold stories in which smart inventors poured their hearts, minds, and bank accounts into great ideas to no avail. Some great ideas will never make it off the drawing board due to existing patents or products, lack of interest, or aversion to risk. Still other good ideas will make it to market only to fail financially due marketing, timing, or legal issues. Regardless, the process of bringing a good idea to reality is generally a long and arduous one at best, and is not recommended for the faint of heart.
One well-known example of a good idea being successfully navigated to market is the Velcro idea. Although an internet search on Velcro will yield multiple links giving the history of this invention, Mary Bellis’ article, “Microscopic view of Velcro,” offers a good description.¹
Before the middle of 20th century, people lived in a Velcro-less world where zippers were standard and shoes had to be laced. All that changed though on one lovely summer day in 1941 when an amateur mountaineer and inventor named George de Mestral decided to take his dog for a nature hike.
De Mestral and his faithful companion both returned home covered with burrs, the plant seed-sacs that clung to animal fur as a way to spread to fertile new planting grounds. He noticed his dog was covered in the stuff. De Mestral was a Swiss engineer who was naturally curious so he took a sample of the many burrs stuck to his pants and placed them under his microscope to see how the properties of the burdock plant allowed it stick to certain surfaces. Perhaps, he thought, they can be used for something useful.
Upon closer examination, it was the small hooks that enabled the seed-bearing burr to cling so stubbornly to the tiny loops in the fabric of his pants. It as during this eureka moment that De Mestral smiled and thought something along the lines of “I will design a unique, two-sided fastener, one side with stiff hooks like the burrs and the other side with soft loops like the fabric of my pants. I will call my invention ‘velcro’ a combination of the word velour and crochet. It will rival the zipper in its ability to fasten.”
De Mestral’s idea was met with resistance and even laughter, but the inventor was undeterred. He worked with a weaver from a textile plant in France to perfect a fastener by experimenting with materials that would hook and loop in a similar manner. Through trial and error, he realized that nylon when sewn under infrared light formed tough hooks for the burr side of the fastener. The discovery led to a completed design that he patented in 1955.
Today Velcro is a household name, but as you can tell from this account, it wasn’t an automatic success, even if it was such a good idea that you might think it would have driven itself to market. Even the success of Velcro required perseverance, a little luck, and an unwavering passion and faith in the idea.
OK, if you haven’t been scared off of the invention bandwagon yet, then perhaps you have what it takes to succeed! If you are willing to go down this road, you may have the persevering spirit required, or at the very least, the gambling spirit! Good, so as professional gamblers would, let’s take a look at our odds. As most inventors know, applying for and being awarded utility patents for their inventions, otherwise known as intellectual property, is typically a prerequisite for extracting any value from ideas. Without this level of protection, anyone who learns of your invention can produce it and sell it as their own, without any compensation to the inventor. According to statistics generated by Bell Labs on the topic of intellectual property, for every 10,000 “ideas” generated with the intention of patenting, 1,000 make it to the point of becoming disclosures, or patent applications. Of those, 100 actually become granted US patents. Of those, 10 generate some value. And, just in case you think you really have a revolutionary idea, of those original 10,000 ideas, 1 will result in a “change in the industry”, such as Velcro. What this boils down to is that for every 10,000 ideas, 1 ends up returning value to the inventor.
Looking at the US Patent and trademark office website, you get a further indication on how high the bar is to conceive of, and gain intellectual property rights for an idea. For the year 2019, there were 669,434 patent applications submitted in the US.² Considering that there were roughly 328 million people in the United States in 2019, and that patent applications may also come from outside the US, you can see that a whole lot of people result in relatively few original ideas.
If you’re still not scared away, come on in and read on. This series, titled “Business of Ideas”, is intended to address some of the lessons learned, best practices, and pitfalls associated with developing your intellectual property portfolio into viable business opportunities. With a broad portfolio of over 200 US utility and design patents granted, and still many others pending, Porticos is in a unique position to share their lessons learned on the roller coaster ride of idea development. So sit back, strap in, and join us over the coming posts as we explore the exciting and rewarding path to idea success.