From the December 1997 issue of Entrepreneur

Youth is not necessarily an impediment to inventing success--if anything, it may actually be an advantage. That's what Thomas Edison discovered. So, too, did Alexander Graham Bell. This month, we focus on young inventors and the road they took to build a better mousetrap.

You're Never Too Young

Suppose you're 10 years old and invent a spill-proof bowl. Can you get a patent? No problem, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which places no limitation on how old a patent holder must be.

While there are no official limitations, 17-year-old Alexia Abernathy found there can be practical barriers. When she was a fifth grader, Abernathy created the Oops! Proof No-Spill Feeding Bowl for an Invent Iowa contest for young inventors. As the Cedar Rapids teen swept local, district and regional competitions, she was encouraged to market her bowl.

"My dad talked to a friend who was a patent attorney because we both thought the next step would be to get a patent," says Abernathy.

The friend advised otherwise, saying it would cost several thousand dollars to complete the patent process. Instead, he suggested writing to companies to see if there was any interest in marketing the product. Abernathy wrote to 12 companies and eventually scored with Little Kids Inc., an East Providence, Rhode Island, children's products manufacturer that wanted to market the bowl.

"We worked with them for close to a year, then applied for a joint patent," says Abernathy. "They paid for it and put my name on it. After about a year, we got a licensing agreement."

This is just one way young inventors can get a patent. You can also get a joint patent with a parent or get one in your own name.

Programs and contests that encourage young inventors include:

  • National Gallery for America's Young Inventors. Annually inducts six students from kindergarten through 12th grade. (330) 376-8300.
  • BFGoodrich Collegiate Inventors Program. National competition administered by Inventure Place and the National Inventors Hall of Fame. (330) 849-6887.
  • Invent America. Program operated by the United States Patent Model Foundation. (703) 684-1836.
  • National Engineering Design Challenge. Annual event for high school students interested in math, science and technology. (703) 548-5387.
  • National Science Teachers Association. Coordinates the Duracell Scholarship Competition and the Space Science Student Involvement Competitions. (703) 243-7100.
  • The Intellectual Property Owners Inventor of the Year Award. (202) 466-2396.

Sound Check

They heeded the call of entrepreneurship two years ago, and now inventors George Searle and Humphrey Chen are right on track with their Wayne, Pennsylvania, interactive music information and retail company, ConneXus Corp.

"We expect big things from this," says Searle, 33, who met Chen, 29, when the two were students at Harvard Business School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "There's a large segment of the [music-buying public] whose needs are currently not well-served by existing distribution. That's our target market."

Searle and Chen created a product called *CD (pronounced "Star CD") that enables radio listeners to use their cellular phones to find out the name of the song they're listening to. "*CD automatically gives you the name of the song, the name of the artist and the name of the album [featuring that song]," says Searle.

Sound like a good idea? Searle and Chen certainly think so--and are planning to test-market their patent-pending technology early next year.

Will the partners revolutionize the music-buying process? Stay tuned.

Good Advice

Connexus corp. co-founder George Searle stresses the importance of not letting enthusiasm eclipse practicality. "In addition to having an idea for a better mousetrap, you have to understand it in a business context. You have to understand the industry, the market, the competition and the necessary technology."

Contact Sources

Alexia Abernathy, (319) 364-2041, lex1124@aol.com

ConneXus Corp., 154 Valley Stream Cir., Wayne, PA 19087-5816, (610) 651-7747