The five steps of invention, from inspiration to a market-ready product.
– By Jim Gorman
The metaphorical lightbulb above Tim Leatherman’s head clicked on while he was touring Eastern Europe on the cheap in 1975. Desperate for a way to turn a stripped radiator handle in his freezing hotel room, the 27-year-old, unemployed, newly married mechanical engineer looked long and hard at the overmatched Boy Scout–issue knife in his hand.
“Wouldn’t it be something if I could add a pair of pliers to a pocketknife?” he asked himself. Fast-forward 35 years and 40 million multitools sold, and today Tim Leatherman embodies the dream of financial and creative freedom that motivates independent inventors everywhere. The company bearing Leatherman’s name in Portland, Oregon, employs 500 people and dominates a R1,5 billion worldwide market for pocket tools that he pioneered.
The tool was hardly an overnight sensation. Years of experimentation, false starts, dead ends, rejection and frustration marked Leatherman’s course. Looking back, he claims he wasn’t even an especially visionary inventor and, at the outset, knew “nothing about business, sales or finance”. Not that it stopped him.
Individual inventors, not to be confused with their corporate and institutional brethren, have been the engine of American industry – mavericks like Edison, Bell and Carrier. Their breakthroughs banished darkness, projected human voices across hundreds of kilometres and cooled the sizzling Sun Belt. Trace back the roots of many blue-chip companies, and you are sure to find a solitary inventor who once had a transformative idea.
The drive to invent is more powerful than ever, but the road isn’t always easy for independent inventors. Out of the 77 501 US utility patents granted in 2008, just six per cent went to individuals. Only a third of applications even earn a patent, and among patents granted, the number that become commercially viable ranges from an estimated five per cent to as low as 0,2 percent. That’s a lot of wreckage left by the side of the road.
Who wins and who loses at the high-stakes game of invention can seem arbitrary. And yet our economy is studded with examples of innovators who, like Leatherman, have launched one successful product after another into an unforgiving marketplace.
We consulted with a number of professional inventors to distil the secrets of the craft. Some have made careers out of invention, others have founded industries. Their consensus: no shortcut exists to success, and nothing substitutes for grit and determination. So, if you’re sitting on an idea that might be the next great invention, here’s your playbook.
1. Cultivate an idea
The annals of invention are studded with one-hit wonders, inventors whose single blockbuster idea made them a fortune. But the most prolific inventors can’t turn off the idea machine. They are too restless and creative. Inventors simply see life’s many obstacles differently to the way the average person sees them, according to medical-devices inventor Robert Fischell. “The key to inventing is the awareness that a problem is the trigger from which an invention can be created,” says Fischell, who holds more than 200 patents for innovations such as an implantable cardiac defibrillator and improved stents. “When I’m in the operating room and a surgeon throws a tool against the wall in frustration, I say, ‘Great, here’s an opportunity’.”
Fischell, who at the height of his career filed a new patent application every six weeks, wastes no time in determining whether his latest idea meets the patent test of being new, useful and non-obvious. He goes right to the Patent and Trademark Office’s database of issued patents and performs a search. “If you read a patent and someone has already solved the problem, then you’re still an inventor. You just got there late,” he says.
If, after a preliminary search, your idea proves novel, then continue developing it. But be realistic about what you’re getting into. “The time you devote will be double what you think it will be, and the (money) you commit will be four times what you thought,” Leatherman says.
Make rough sketches, perform tests, flesh out concepts and keep detailed notes. Patent attorneys advise their clients to maintain a log in a permanently bound notebook that gets stamped by a notary public on a frequent basis. A log-book becomes important in cases involving identical innovations, as the burden of proof falls to patent applicants to demonstrate that they were the first to conceive of an invention.
At this early stage in the game, your investment of personal time and money will have been slight compared with what is around the bend. Before proceeding, you'll have to ask some hard questions about both your idea and yourself:
- Is my idea significantly different from any that precede it?
- Is there a sizable market for the product?
- Can it be developed and manufactured at reasonable cost?
- Who is the customer, and why should they buy my product and not a competitor's?
- And finally, am I willing to commit myself fully to making this idea succeed?
Inventors who have been through the process caution not to underestimate the emotional and psychological fortitude required. Can the invention fail and not the person?” asks Dean Kamen, inventor of numerous medical devices, the Segway and the iBOT all-terrain wheelchair. “If you can’t afford emotionally and intellectually to fail, if your ego would be wiped out, then don’t do it.”
2. Build a protoype
With the availability of powerful computing and computer-assisted design software such as Autodesk Inventor and SolidWorks 3D CAD, inventors today live in what Kamen refers to as “the ultimate candy store”. The earliest versions of Kamen’s first invention, a wearable infusion pump that delivers precise doses of medications such as insulin, sprang to life not on a computer screen but in a workshop set up in the basement of his parents’ home. Kamen was a teenager at the time.
Even when designed in a highly precise digital CAD environment, a product eventually has to make the leap to the real world in the form of a prototype. For a sizable fee, specialist prototype firms translate drawings into moulded plastic or steel. Or you might try your luck with a local machine shop. Depending on the materials involved and the complexity of an invention, the cost of making a quality prototype can empty a bank account and force an inventor to seek funding at a very early stage.
Tim Leatherman advocates taking a DIY approach. During a trial-and-error phase lasting three years, he built prototypes of his groundbreaking multitool from cardboard, wood and metal until he settled on an advanced design. “By working with my hands,” he says, “I learned about obstacles to functionality and manufacturability.”
Once you have your prototype, it’s time to troubleshoot your invention. Get outside your own head and go to experts in the field, Fischell recommends. “Ask them, ‘Do you think my idea has commercial merit? Would you use it?’ But make them sign a confidentiality agreement,” he says. For inventors, the prospect of intellectual property theft is very real, but too much caution can become immobilising. A confidentiality, or nondisclosure, agreement allows you to field-test in confidence.
Feedback from Mario Salazar’s target audience – carpenters – compelled him to fine-tune his digital mitre gauge. The mechanical prototype he built in the basement with a soldering iron, an oscilloscope and a milling machine picked up on eBay worked smoothly and felt right to Salazar, but the tradesmen wanted it bigger and more affordable. “You can’t fall in love with your invention,” he says. “Get feedback and make alterations accordingly.”
3. File a patent
In the rough-and-tumble business world, a patent protects the inventor by granting the exclusive right to exclude others from making, using or selling his invention for a 20-year period. That’s the theory. In practice, a patent gives the inventor a head start against the wolf pack. “When other people see you making money, your patent will be the only means you have for maintaining control of the market,” says Lonnie Johnson, founder of Johnson ElectroMechanical Systems and inventor of the Super Soaker water gun.
Patent law is complicated stuff, so get an experienced patent attorney to write and file your patent application. Expect to pay between R10 000 and R20 000 for a provisional patent application. “Hire a patent attorney who also has a degree in the field you’re applying for a patent in and who knows your market,” Salazar advises.
A skilled lawyer can draft a broad patent that protects an invention against infringement from any angle. In the case of Richard Phillips, owner of International Survival, his well-crafted patent application made it impossible for anyone to copy the thin, shock-absorbing material he developed for his protective paintball vest. “My lawyer spread the patent out so far above and below my laminated foam material’s properties that a competitor’s vest would have to be so heavy the wearer couldn’t walk or so light that the vest falls apart when hit,” Phillips says.
On average, patent approval takes three years and may require going back and forth several times with patent examiners. From the moment a patent application arrives at the patent office until it is either issued or abandoned, an invention is covered by patent-pending status. In the case of John Marsden, who invented Pour ’N Store, a bartending system of plastic bottles and pour spouts for drink mixers, a pending patent amounted to a suit of paper armour. “One company said, ‘If you don’t sell us the patent we’re going to compete with you.’ I didn’t have enough money to fight them in court. We eventually made a deal, and they paid me royalties for years.”
According to Salazar, any inventor has to be ready to do battle. Having a good lawyer in your corner is a must. “If your idea’s good, then someone is going to steal it. If no one’s trying to steal it, then the idea’s probably no good,” he says. “I’ll have my lawyer send a cease-and-desist letter if someone infringes on my patent. If it continues, I give them the diplomatic option to buy a license from me. If diplomacy doesn’t work, then that’s when the money goes out the door in legal fees. In the end, a patent is only as good as the thickness of your wallet.”
4. Test a market
Once the patent application is complete, the inventor must switch from building an idea to building a business. Rare is the creative genius behind an invention who also has the business chops – or the interest – to oversee the manufacture, marketing and selling of his creation. So even the brightest creative minds can fall victim to the numerous scams and questionable invention-promotion firms whose ads litter the Internet. Most professional inventors urge caution with any outfit that asks for money up front to shop your ideas around.
A safer route when you’re in the thickets is to find a partner whose skill set complements yours. Mario Salazar, a born salesman, teamed with Jay Burgan, who has an engineering and software background. Tim Leatherman accrued crucial know-how in business and manufacturing by joining with Steve Berliner. It didn’t hurt that Berliner’s dad owned a metalworking business. John Marsden, the Pour ’N Store developer, partnered early on with business school graduate Ed Harrigan. “If I hadn’t had Ed, I probably wouldn’t have made it,” he says.
With a solid business team set up, the next step is market research and test marketing. Marketing studies – perform your own or commission a market research firm – will give you data about market trends and customer demographics. There is no substitute, however, for putting your invention in front of potential customers as well as manufacturers, suppliers and distributors to get a sense of its market value. For the inventor, this is an anxious time. As Robert Fischell learned, thick skin helps. “For many of the inventions I’ve done, somebody always said, ‘It’ll never work.’ I went to a famous doctor at a major medical centre with one of my early stent designs. He told me there’s no future in stents.” Well, stents are a R50 billion market now.
Salazar is a big believer in showing your wares at trade shows. “You’ll find out who is doing what, whether you’ll be able to compete and if someone is willing to buy what you have,” he says. “But you’re also dropping your drawers and everyone will see what you’ve got. Your product had better be 95 per cent complete. Be ready to answer questions: How big is the market? Who’s going to buy it?”
5. Sell it or make it
Inventors make money in two ways: collecting royalties by licensing the right to manufacture their invention or manufacturing, distributing and marketing the invention themselves. Sooner or later, all successful inventors reach this fork in the road and must decide for themselves which route to pursue. Louis J Foreman, founder and chief executive of Enventys, a product design and engineering firm and author of The Independent Inventor’s Handbook, has personally faced that dilemma multiple times as the holder of 10 patents and has advised numerous inventors as lead judge on the PBS programme Everyday Edisons. “The first thing to do is build a pro forma income statement. Figure out what kind of revenue you could generate versus the overhead and expenses selling that product,” Foreman says. Then it’s time to ask yourself another round of questions.
First, is there enough upside potential to merit the risk of bringing the product to market yourself? “Factor in opportunity costs, too,” Foreman says. “If you have to give up a job that pays R500 000, can you make enough to offset that?” Second, do you have the financial resources to pull it off? If you don’t, then where is the money going to come from? Finally, do you have the competence to run a business? “It’s one thing to come up with an amazing product, but are you comfortable selling it, can you distribute it, replenish it and fulfill orders if a supermarket chain gives you a 5-million-piece purchase order?” Foreman says.
There is no doubt that licensing is the easier route to getting an invention to market. It requires less devotion of time and up-front capital and frees inventors to do what they do best: invent. But expedience comes at a cost. Royalty rates on patents – formulated on list price, production run and other factors – average less than 2 to 7 per cent of retail sales. Still, for a first-time inventor short on funds and know-how, a licensing agreement can be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Lonnie Johnson, who fashioned his Super Soaker prototypes using a Unimat hobby lathe and milling machine while moonlighting from his job at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, intended to manufacture his invention. Bids he received from injection moulding companies quickly killed that idea. When he learned it would cost R1,5 million to make 1 000 guns, he decided to license. “I didn’t have that kind of money.” Today he does. Retail sales of the Super Soaker hover around R8 billion, and royalties have made Johnson a wealthy man.
Manufacturing a product, on the other hand, is a leap into the unknown. To get started, you need to find investors for financing, then build relationships with potential manufacturers and distributors. Then there’s marketing, sales and management. It can be as much as if not more work than you put into the development of the invention itself. But the potential profits are far higher than any licence.
Tim Leatherman was an accidental industrialist. His first inclination after perfecting a functional prototype of his multitool was to shop it among knife companies with a licensing arrangement in mind. “When knife companies took a look at the prototype, they said, ‘That’s not a knife. That’s a tool.’ So then I went to tool companies, and they said, ‘That’s not a tool. That’s a gadget.’”
Leatherman began to get discouraged, and took a job as an outside salesman for a welding products company. He worked there for four years before Berliner, a friend from college, stepped in and said, “We need to start our own company.”
Rejections continued to pile up. They started shopping the invention around to mail-order catalogues, but got no yeses. Finally, they hit paydirt. “Instead of just kicking us out the door,” says Leatherman, “they sat us down and said: ‘How can we make this less expensive?’” He and Berliner went back to the drawing board, simplifying the prototype in an effort to lower the manufacturing cost from R300 a unit to R186. Then they resolicited the catalogue companies with their pared-down tool.
“Later we got a letter from Cabela’s,” Leatherman says. Inside was a purchase order for 500 tools valued at R93 000. Says Leatherman: “You can’t believe how happy I was.”
Inventors have traditionally turned their ideas into prototypes with plenty of sketches and endless iterations in wood, clay or metal. But the digital age has introduced a totally new toolkit.
Computer-aided design (CAD) software allows rapid and highly precise blueprinting, computed numerical control (CNC) milling and routing equipment transfers that precision to the physical world, and 3D printers can create fully formed objects on demand.
Plus, the cost of both hardware and software has fallen dramatically. Free programs, such as BRL-CAD (which was developed by the military for weapons design) and Blender, can create 3D objects onscreen.
Open-source invention organisations, such as NextFab Store and MakerBot, sell 3D desktop printers and kits through their websites, ranging from about R6 000 to R30 000. Alternatively, you can download plans from Fab@Home for free and source the parts yourself.
But if you don’t want to own your own machine, look up local invention facilities such as the FabLabs run under the auspices of the Department of Science and Technology’s CSIRmanaged advanced manufacturing technology strategy. Locations include the Innovation Hub in Pretoria, Soshanguve, Cape Town, Bloemfontein and Potchefstroom
Gaining a patent requires money, time and perseverance – and that’s when everything goes smoothly. We asked attorney Richard Beem, of Beem Patent Law in Chicago, to flag some of the most common blunders that can trip up many fledgling inventors.
Filing a patent at the concept stage.
This is the biggest mistake I see. Inventors file before they’ve made their invention. I always ask them, have you tried it out? Have you made a prototype, preferably in secret? The prototype doesn’t have to be pretty, but if you haven’t made one, you’re not ready.
Filing a patent yourself.
New inventors lack objectivity and experience with the process. They either make the claims too broad or too specific. A welldrawn claim is an abstraction that captures the essence of an invention to distinguish it over prior art. You really need a patent attorney for that.
Failing to put enough detail in the patent
The truth is, the more detail you put in, the broader the final patent will be. We front-load the process by writing thoroughly in the application.
Assuming that a cheaper, easier, provisional patent will do.
Some inventors think that, because a provisional patent doesn’t require the same technical detail as a formal application, they can write down a few words, add a sketch or two and their idea is protected. A provisional application is garbage in, garbage out. In a year it goes poof!
Waiting for a patent to sell itself.
“Patent pending” is like staking a claim to a gold mine. You still have to dig. Once you file, get out the door and sell, and try to make some money on the invention.
Getting discouraged by patent rejection
I’d say 90 per cent of the first Patent Office actions are rejections. We interpret that as the examiner saying, “You haven’t convinced me yet. Explain again why your claimed invention is different from prior art.” Your patent attorney will then negotiate with the examiner. Most of the time the second Patent Office action is an allowance
Your first trade show
A trade show can give a view of the competition and access to potential clients, but for an inexperienced inventor, it can be an object lesson in chaos and expense.
After attending a trade show with premature technology, Mario Salazar, inventor of the ProMiter-100 digital mitre gauge, realised he couldn’t rush success. “You know you’re not ready when you have to do some smoke and mirrors to get through the presentation,” Salazar says. So he fine-tuned the design, improving his gauge’s accuracy. At the next show, he sold the licence. “It was a much more finished product,” he says. “The less work buyers have to do, the more likely they’re going to buy it as is.”
It’s also important to focus on whom you’re trying to reach at the show. Bernardo J Herzer, inventor of the Lehr gaspowered edge trimmer, worked to get his product in front of retailers. When you do get an audience, listen as much as you talk. “You’re not going to get a yes every time,” he says. “But whenever you meet with somebody, you’ve got to learn something. Listen to their objections.”
Finally, scout the show itself. When he first decided to show the Pocket Radar handheld speed-detection device at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Chris Stewart was overwhelmed by the logistical challenges of a trade-show booth. “Talk to someone who has already worked that particular show,” he says. Stewart’s PR rep – a CES veteran – found the crew a high-traffic booth location. “It was an eye-opener when we saw the terrible location we would have picked on our own,” he says.
Spirit of invention:
A culture of creativity has inspired 220 years of professional engineering and basement tinkering.
“To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” – Thomas Edison
Solo flights of fancy
“Be alone – that is the secret of invention. Be alone, that is when ideas are born.” – Nikola Tesla, who invented the alternating-current motor
The knowledge base
“The more you learn, the more you are able to see. When you see a different pattern … it’s that ‘Eureka!’ moment." – Post-it inventor Art Fry
Power of persistence
“I made 5 127 prototypes of my vacuum; 5 126 were failures. But I learned from each one. That’s how I came up with a solution.” – James Dyson
Frank Zamboni, inventor of the iceresurfacing machine (1949), built three prototypes using old tractors, jeep components and war-surplus parts.
Patents are a virtue
When Samuel Hopkins received the first US patent in 1790 for his improved method of making potash, George Washington himself presided.
“Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success.” – Thomas Edison
Profit from experience
A 1999 survey of patent holders found that, the more patents an inventor had, the higher his financial success rate with new inventions.
Coach Bill Bowerman made running shoes for years. But it took the business savvy of one of his runners, Phil Knight, to create the Nike brand.
The patent protector
Jerry Lemelson famously fought for his 600-plus patents in court. From 1954 to 1997, he collected more than R7,75 billion in licensing, royalties and settlements.
* Video: Take a tour of the Leatherman factory in Portland, Oregon.
* Video: The biggest, baddest air-powered water gun