An inventor renaissance is under way. Increasingly, companies are looking outside their walls for ideas for products ranging from the next novel ice cream flavor to new toys or health care devices. Likewise, inventors can now turn to a number of different online communities for ideation, evaluation, product development and funding.
The innovation process can be furthered on various types of online platforms, which differ in the way inventors can own and protect the intellectual property of their ideas and reap rewards when the product is brought to market. Obtaining proper patent protection is vital to the process.
Patents protect inventors’ exclusive rights to their invention and give them a “mini monopoly” on their product idea for the duration of the patent. In theory, others are prevented from making, selling or using the invention (or its functional equivalent) for 20 years after the patent application is filed.
An American patent provides protection throughout United States and prevents the importation of infringing products from abroad.
That all sounds wonderful, which is why many inventors rush to patent their idea as an initial step. But successfully applying, obtaining and maintaining a U.S. patent can cost as much as $10,000, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The flip side, however, is that manufacturers with the ability to potentially license an invention often do not review ideas from individual inventors or small businesses unless an patent has been issued and even a product prototype developed.
An inventor will want to find out if his or her idea can be patented in order to offer market exclusivity to a vendor. Without market exclusivity, it’s unlikely a manufacturer will pay to license the invention. Because obtaining attorney advice and legal protection are so costly and tricky for most novice inventors, many risk their great ideas via crowdsourcing or crowdfunding websites to gain the traction and funding necessary to move forward.
Think of crowdsourcing like this: An inventor in an online forum such as Quirky.com can share a great idea for a vessel that holds liquid. Another contributor could suggest that the inventor add a handle and yet another person offer that the vessel should be of stainless steel. The product’s design is now altered, perhaps for the better, based on the feedback.
Another example is Target’s 2013 Simplicity Challenge, which was a nationwide search for innovative ideas to simplify health care. Ideas poured in from consumers and inventors. Many ideas could be viewed on the Target promotion website, thereby running the risk that the intellectual property could be seized.
With online communities like these, inventors might experience the thrill of seeing the potential for their ideas to bear fruit and companies can benefit from drawing diverse innovative ideas from a wide swath of the public. Yet the transparency inherent in crowdsourcing can be problematic when it comes to securing intellectual property protection for an idea. There's the risk that an outside observer could file for a patent before the inventor does.
Plus, under U.S. patent law, all co-inventors must be included in a patent application. In the vessel example above, the inventor and two contributors could end up having equal rights to the invention -- which could be significant if one co-inventor attempted to commercialize the product.
Unintentionally including joint inventors can dilute a patent's commercial value. The co-inventor setup can really matter if an inventor’s product starts making money or the inventor decides to sell the patent to a third party.
Inventors are lucky to have another option: open innovation.
Coined by Henry Chesbrough of the Center for Open Innovation at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, open innovation allows for firms to use both internal and external ideas to optimally evolve and grow their business. In an open innovation environment, mutually beneficial partnerships can play an important role in infusing new ideas into an organization while allowing both parties share in the risk and reward.
Inventors need a platform that they can trust -- where they know their ideas and innovative thoughts will not be stolen. In certain online environments individuals and organizations can collaborate for mutually beneficial solutions: Inventors receive efficacy evaluation and product development support along with financial backing minus the risk of their idea being stolen or personal capital lost.
Companies that use an open innovation platform, such as Unilever Global, Samsung and my company, Edison Nation Medical, call on inventors to confidentially submit their inventions to teams of experienced evaluators, legal professionals and commercialization experts.
These companies have a variety of means through which the invention ideas can be commercialized, including startup accelerators or incubation models that provide access to mentors, decision-makers and global distribution.
Sure, open innovation and crowdsourcing platforms empower inventors through group support and both are powerful ways to fuel innovation across a number of industries in the United States. But open innovation can create an environment where inventors have greater legal protection for their intellectual property.