Last week, I was honored to give the keynote at the First Annual Patent Bootcamp for Women and Minorities in STEM at the University of Arkansas.

The day was quite full, with experts from around the region and country providing insights to a full room about how women/people of color can acquire greater access to the patent system. the spirit of that conversation, I wanted to share some lessons from the bootcamp for current-and-future inventors who weren’t there.

One of the things that struck me throughout the day was how many inventors had the fundamental questions about inventing and patenting. Many questions were about the basics of when/where/how you even know that you have something worth patenting in the first place. And, people really wanted to know what they could actually patent and what wouldn’t make it through the patent office.

Before you can really be prepared for the complicated world of patents, its important to understand the basic realities of what you’re getting into!

Here are three realities for innovators just starting down the path of brainstorming, ideating, inventing, and patenting: #1: you need more than just “an idea,” #2: you need help; and #3 you may or may not get rich.

#1: You need more than just “an idea”

Lots of folks have ideas about how to solve problems, but ideas aren’t patentable by themselves. This is just the starting point. What is patentable is an invention. An invention is what happens after you find a problem, come up with an idea to solve that problem, and literally articulate the steps in the process that allow your idea to solve that problem.

For example, if you hear lots of stories in the news about kids being left in hot cars, you might have an idea for a device that reminds adults that there’s a child in the backseat before they get out, lock the door, and go into work. This is an incredible and valuable idea, but it isn’t patentable until you do the work of identifying the steps necessary to create that device, and perhaps make some drawings or a prototype. The latter is the actual invention.

So, your first step is to clearly determine all of the steps that get your problem-solving-concept from idea to actual invention. This can take days, weeks, months or years, depending on what you’re considering.

For more on what is patentable, you can check out my other articles here, including “What Can You Patent?” and “How to Protect Your Invention.”

 #2. You need help

The patent system in the United States is complicated, time-consuming, and expensive. For these reasons, and others, many people work with patent lawyers who are experienced and competent. These lawyers do not come cheap. The Patent Bootcamp in Arkansas featured many professionals, lawyers and inventors alike, who reiterated the importance of competent counsel through the patent process.

Here are some suggestions that can help you get the right kind of help, at the right price point, for your invention and goals.

* If you absolutely have to do this on your own, without a patent lawyer, check out the NOLO Patent It Yourself book. It is one of the best I’ve seen. Sometimes you can find an edition in the library.

*Speaking of libraries, there are a number of Patent and Trademark Resource Centers around the U.S. that can help you through the federal government’s patent and trademark processes.

* If you want to try working with a lawyer and/or law students acting under a lawyer’s direction, but have very limited resources, read this article I wrote: For Women: On Being an Inventor and Finding a Patent Lawyer (it’s good for the fellas/non-binary/genderqueer folks too!). It is full of low-cost resources, including the Law School Clinic Certification Program (students and lawyers draft applications for low/no money, besides filing fees) and the Patent Pro Bono Project.

* If you can afford it, hire someone. An average patent application costs between $7,000-$10,000, and the application is just the first step in what will likely be a multi-year process with even more fees, so you want to choose right. My For Women: On Being an Inventor and Finding a Patent Lawyer article gives some suggestions on how to find a patent lawyer. The Patent and Trademark Resource Centers can also help you find a lawyer.

#3 You may or may not get rich

Many inventors assume that getting the patent is the pièce de résistance and the key to unlocking millions and millions of dollars. This may happen for you, and I hope it does. One need only look to Sara Blakely’s story of patenting and building what has become known as Spanx for confirmation that it is indeed possible.

Monetizing a patented invention is not for the faint at heart. Once you get that patent in hand, manna does not automatically flow from heaven. You’ll either have to make and sell the invention yourself or find others to make and sell your invention.

Re. making/selling your invention, if you don’t already have the money, you’ll have to seek funding from a bank, family and friends, or investors. Women can have it tough when it comes to fundraising, but, obviously, all things are possible. One woman, Arlan Hamilton, has founded Backstage Capital to invest in underrepresented founders, including women, POC, and folks in the LGTBQIA+ community.

Re. finding others to make and sell your invention, a common way to do this is via licensing, where you and a third party create a contract where you give the third party permission to make and/or sell the invention in exchange for some kind of payment(s). As has been written about elsewhere, licensing is HARD. However, don’t be discouraged, just be realistic.

These three realities popped up many times during the Patent Bootcamp in Arkansas. Hopefully they help you on your journey!

What other realities have you experienced as an inventor? Drop a line in the comments and let me know what your experience was like!

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