A Better Mousetrap: Four Steps In Going From Invention To Market

| January 9, 2015

man looking to idea“Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door” (a misquotation of Ralph Waldo Emerson) has been the maxim of American ingenuity for more than 100 years.  Innovation is the engine of economic progress, and the intellectual property of an invention is guarded by patent law.  There have been more than 4,000 U.S. patents granted for various forms of mousetraps, and the most common one in use remains U.S. Patent #528,671 issued in 1894.  Still, the famous mousetrap misquotation is a primer on the four steps necessary for moving from idea to invention and then from invention to a marketable product.

1.    The MOUSETRAP  (Solving a Common Problem).  There has been an explosion of innovation in America.   In the 1960s, United States Patent Office granted about 50,000 patents each year.  By the 1990s, it was 100,000 patents a year; then 200,000 patents a year by 2010; and now more than 300,000 patents each year.   Still, only about 2% of all patented products ever make it to market.  Why?  Because to become economically viable, the product has to address a need of the targeted market at an affordable price. In the words of Mark Cuban “Don’t sell your product, solve their problems.” What this means to the inventor is, do not fall in love with your invention for its own sake.  You should start the journey with the end in mind, and the end should be a product that some market will pay money for.

2.    Making a BETTER Mousetrap (Improving the State of the Art).  If you have an idea for a product or system that will advance the state of the art, the first thing to do is to document it, in order to create proof of when you came up with the innovation. Write down everything you can think of that relates to it.  Use “an inventor’s journal” and have it signed by a witness (the journal should be a bound notebook whose pages are numbered consecutively and can’t be removed or reinserted).

The next step is to research the idea to see if it really is new and better.  Before retaining a patent attorney or agent, do a basic search for free at www.uspto.gov to see if anyone else has patented your idea. You should also complete a non-patent “prior art” search. These steps will give you a good idea if you should spend the money to have a formal patent application prepared and filed.

3.    BUILD that better mousetrap (Making a Prototype).  If you have an idea that really will advance the current market alternatives, build a model that incorporates all of the things you have written in your inventor’s journal, and use the journal to document your progress. This process will reveal flaws in your original design, and suggest new features to be added.  The prototype should start with a drawing and move to a full-working model of your idea.  If your invention is something that does not lend itself to building a prototype because of size or cost, consider using a computer-animated virtual prototype.

4.    The PATH to your door (Reaching Your Market).  You need a path as the connection between “your door” and “the world.”  Define who the market is for this product or system as specifically as you can, and then research that target market. Determine the price that market can and will pay for your product, research the competition, and then consider how to manufacture and distribute the product at a low enough cost to make the sale price attractive.

better_mousetrapOnce you (i) have the Mousetrap, and (ii) you have made it Better than the existing state of the art, and (iii) you have Built a prototype for it, and (iv) you know the Path, then you are ready to file an application for a patent.  A patent is an exclusive right granting the inventor the right to exclude others from making, using or selling the invention in the country during the life of the patent.  There are two types of patents: a utility patent (20 year life), and a design patent (14 year life). Although you can write the patent and fill out the application yourself, it is best to retain competent legal help.  There is no economic value in a patent that is not strong enough to stand up when there are efforts made to infringe on it. When looking for a patent attorney, make sure that he or she is registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and has the technical background to really understand your product or design.

At the same time you are filing for a patent, you should be creating a business plan. This will take one of two basic forms. Will you raise money, work within a small team, and bring the product to market yourself?  Or will you license the product to an established company who will manufacture and market it, paying you a royalty, usually in the range of 2% to 5% of revenue?

Either way, and regardless of whether you already have a patent or not, you should have a confidentiality/non-disclosure agreement signed by any potential partners or licensees before discussing the specifics of your product or design.  Without such an agreement, there is very little legal protection against your idea being taken and used without you being compensated for it.

With these steps in place, you may indeed have a better mousetrap, and a world ready to buy it.

There are good resources on line to walk you through the process, including ipfrontline, ip.com, and the United State Patent and Trademark Office website.

Category: Technology