If your business relies on inventions to maintain a competitive edge, you need to keep the pipeline flowing even when funds are scarce. A slow economy or other business disruption doesn’t mean you can ignore critical inventions. If you don’t take timely action to protect them, you may forfeit the right to file a patent application. That means other companies can freely use your unique inventions in their own competing products.
For example, U.S. patent laws have time requirements for filing patent applications. If your company publicly discloses an invention or sells a product with the invention, those activities can trigger a one-year deadline to file a patent application covering it. If you don’t act before the one-year deadline, you can forfeit your ability to obtain patent protection.
Don’t let limited funds prevent you from protecting key inventions. To get the most value from a tight budget, here is a three-step system to protect your most valuable inventions.
1. Invention discovery
Before you can take steps to protect your most important inventions, you first need to identify every invention developed in your organization. An important first step is teaching your team members how to identify the inventions they create. An invention is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as “something that has never been made before.”
A few inventions are revolutionary new products that disrupt an industry. In my experience, most inventions are incremental improvements to an existing product or system. Although the incremental inventions may not receive as much publicity, they can still provide significant value to your company.
One way to discover inventions is to identify obstacles that were overcome during product development. In hindsight, the solutions to the obstacles may seem simple, but consider the amount of time spent developing the solution. If no solution was readily available and your team had to create a new solution, that’s likely an invention.
Review your current work activities and recently completed projects to look for inventions. What was created that had not been done before? Add these items to your list of inventions.
Automate the invention-discovery process by discussing inventions during all product-development projects. For example, schedule periodic meetings to brainstorm about the inventions contained in the project. It’s easier to discover inventions when the project is still fresh in the minds of the development team. Be sure to schedule a final meeting when the product is complete to look back and be sure all inventions are identified. Schedule regular brainstorming and ideation sessions to capture more inventions and maintain a steady flow of new ideas.
Now that you have developed a list of inventions, it’s time to identify the most valuable inventions on the list.
2. Invention analysis
All inventions are not of equal value. That’s why it is important to analyze your list of inventions to select the most valuable items for your company. When working with a limited budget, selecting the most valuable inventions provides the best ROI (return on investment) for your organization.
When analyzing your invention list, consider multiple factors to determine the value of each invention. For example, consider the competitive advantage. If a “must-have” feature in your product sets you apart from other companies, patenting that feature is valuable because it means your product has exclusive rights to that feature in the marketplace.
Also consider factors such as the feasibility of implementing the invention, the likelihood of obtaining a patent and the ability of a competitor to design around the invention. If an invention is difficult to implement, you may be better off waiting until the invention is fully developed and tested. Some categories of inventions, such as certain software-related inventions, may be difficult to patent. If funds are limited, these inventions may not be the best candidates. And, if an invention is easy for a competitor to design around, a patent covering the invention will have little value.
After analyzing the list of inventions, identify the strongest candidates for patent protection. These top-priority inventions should receive your budgeted funds.
3. Invention protection
You have two options for protecting your inventions. One is “traditional” patent application must satisfy various rules, content requirements, formatting requirements and legal guidelines. This type of patent application often costs $10,000-$15,000 (depending on complexity) when prepared by a patent attorney.
When working with a tight budget, the other option worth considering is a provisional patent application, which must satisfy the same invention disclosure requirements as the traditional application, but it is much faster (and much less expensive) to prepare. Provisional patent applications also have a significantly lower filing fee, often $2,500-$4,000.
The provisional patent application does not mature into a patent itself. Instead, it gives the applicant 12 months to decide whether to file a traditional patent application. During those 12 months, you can test the invention in the marketplace, seek investors and see if your business revenue improves. At the end of the 12-month period, you can convert the provisional patent application into a traditional patent application or let the provisional patent application go abandoned.
In some cases, you can combine multiple inventions into a single provisional patent application to stretch your budget further. By combining multiple inventions into a single provisional patent application, you can protect several important inventions while deferring a significant portion of the patent preparation costs. Each situation is different, so discuss this option with a patent attorney to see if it’s appropriate for your inventions.
Don’t neglect your inventions just because funds are scarce. Otherwise, you risk forfeiting your ability to protect those inventions. Use the above system to identify your most valuable inventions and consider provisional patent applications to protect those critical assets.
Steve Sponseller Entrepreneur Leadership Network Writer / Intellectual Property Attorney
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