Q: I have an idea for a new lawn mower blade that would revolutionize the way your lawn mower cuts. I'd like to sell my idea to a company that already manufactures and markets blades. How do I find the right contacts, and how do I find a company that will manufacture and market this product?
A: Finding the right contacts is easy; engaging them in negotiations is difficult. No corporation of any size or sophistication will even read your written correspondence regarding your invention or speak with you by phone or in person until you sign away all your rights, except those granted to you by a patent. Even if you've applied for a patent and are well into the usual negotiations with the patent office, you aren't likely to find a receptive corporation until your patent issues.
Here's why: Inventions tend to arise simultaneously from more than one inventor. Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell filed papers at the patent office within hours of each other on the same day. The idea for the telephone was based on the telegraph. Several inventors at that time thought that if the vibrations of the telegraph key could be sent over wires, why not the vibrations of the human voice? My point is that inventions emerge from antecedents, which may be technology or customs. There's a reasonable probability that any corporation you approach has already thought of your invention and has it on a "back burner" or may even be working on developing it. In such cases, the inventor often imagines that his or her idea has been stolen and may sue. Juries often sympathize with the "poor little inventor," who has been mistreated by the "evil corporation."
The only person who has the legal right to the invention is the person in whose name the patent is issued. Although you theoretically could negotiate on the basis of your patent application long before your patent actually issues, no one knows which of the claims in your application will be accepted by the patent office until a few weeks before your patent issues. If the key claim or claims on which the value of your invention rests are rejected, your patent may be worthless to the prospective licensee, which then feels free to proceed with your invention without compensating you. Bottom line: You need your patent in your hand before negotiating with a potential licensee.
As for finding a manufacturer, you might start by searching in the Thomas Register of American Manufacturers, also found in the reference department of your library. Also ask your librarian for the NAICS directory(North American Industrial Classification System). Every product is assigned a code in this directory, which is compiled by the U.S. Department of Commerce. This numeric code can be used to find other sources of manufacturers who may not be listed under "Blades" in the Thomas Register. Ask your librarian to point you to other directories as well, such as Dun & Bradstreet, Standard & Poor'sand perhaps your own state's industrial listings. Other than the Thomas Register, these directories will provide the names of the presidents and marketing directors of the companies you're hoping to contact. Address your inquiries to the president in smaller corporations and the vice president of marketing in the larger corporations.
Don't neglect contacting lawn mower manufacturers, too. They'd be more likely to see the advantage of owning the patent and subcontracting the blade to be manufactured.
Jack Lander is a prototyper for inventors. Prior to starting his own business, he worked for several years as a corporate manufacturing engineer and later, as a mechanical design engineer, acquiring 13 product patents. You can contact Jack at (203) 792-1377 or visit his Web site, The Inventor's Bookstore, at www.inventorhelp.com.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.
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