Common myths and errors with first time inventors

Date: 15th June 2017

The most important thing is getting a patent’….

Securing the intellectual property rights is important and the usual way is through applying for a patent but the patent should not be seen as the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal must always be to create wealth from the idea. In fact, applying for the patent is right at the beginning1 of a long and difficult journey that is expensive and very risky and uncertain. I talked to someone some years ago who had spent £40,000 on international patents before he had built and tested anything. His favourite one was a device for showers and I told him plainly that it would not work as it defied the laws of physics: “but my patent agent said it would” was his reply – well, yes, he would, having earned a fortune! I made a test rig for a few hundred pounds and demonstrated that it could not work. This man was a very successful hotelier and he was rich and a bit too self-assured. He should have first done his research and the proof-of-concept stages before investing in patents.

‘I’ll just sell it to Ikea’

“I’ll just sell it to Ikea” were words spoken to me by a man who had won an invention award for his idea which was a kind of shelf that you didn’t need to fix to a wall. It was called ‘The Ledge” and it was clever (but not without flaws in my opinion). Winning the award made him believe that Ikea would buy it from him. He spent a bit on making prototypes but then spent £20,000 -all his savings- on international patents. He had no money left and unfortunately Ikea said no. (I know this because I asked them). His mistake in my opinion was to sink all his funds into international patents which are very expensive. He could have spent a fraction of that on a UK-only patent and perhaps made up a small first batch to sell with what he had left. That might have at least attracted good publicity.

‘I’ve applied for a patent now please make a prototype for me’

It is usually always an error to patent too early. The temptation to do this is very strong because of the fear that someone will get there ahead of you. But it’s essential to do the proof-of-concept things first: make sure it is new, make sure it works, make sure the design has been optimised, then apply. I was approached by a prospective client who had made a prototype paint dispenser for artists. He had already applied for a patent. He wanted someone to manufacture it for him. But, although impressive, it was ten times as complicated as it needed to be. However, he rejected this advice because he had patented it. He should have finalised the basic design before applying.

‘I thought of it -it’s someone else’s job to do the rest’

There is a belief that a person thinks of an idea, takes it to a manufacturer and then receives royalties. The idea is very alluring because it implies a minimum of effort. The inventor has done their part by thinking of it. The brilliant idea is thus ‘bought’ by a super rich organisation and the inventor is made for life. I have not heard of a single case where this has happened. As Thomas Edison once said: “invention is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”. The core error here is the implication that someone else should do the due diligence2. If you approach a third party whether they are a manufacturer or an investor they will need to know 3 things: IS IT NEW? DOES IT WORK? and IS IT YOURS? If you cannot show that it is (probably) new, cannot prove that it works and cannot provide evidence that you are the intellectual property owner then you are effectively expecting them to do these activities for you.

‘I want you to make a prototype so that I can take it to a manufacturer’

A commonly held myth is that you make a prototype, apply for the patent and then manufacture it. Where is the error? The mistake lies in the idea that ‘making a prototype’ is a one-off activity. James Dyson famously made 2000 prototypes before he felt ready to manufacture his first cyclone vacuum cleaner. It shouldn’t always require quite that number but the point is that innovation is a process and there can be many stages before a design is finished. We have just completed version #4 of a device for fishing. The first one worked but was too complicated, too big and too heavy. The second was abandoned as impractical. The third worked but was hard to assemble. The fourth worked, was light, just about small enough and was very simple to build. It is now ready to move towards tooling for manufacture.

‘They said that to Einstein too!’

Some people believe that the very fact of having your idea rejected somehow proves that it must be valid because that happened to people like Einstein and Galileo as well! But of course the adage that “all fools are poets but not all poets are fools” also applies here! Being told that your idea won’t work does not mean you are a genius! The worst culprits are those with perpetual motion inventions. I have talked to quite a few over the last 17 years and two things are always true: they won’t listen when you say that you can’t create energy from nothing; and the mere fact that you think they are wrong proves that they are right!!

Having said all of the above, a person shouldn’t be put off just because no-one listens. If it works and makes business sense, people will listen eventually (as long as it is presented properly). It is important to persevere, but to be ruthless with it if faced with the hard reality that it does not work as you expected, or it is just too expensive to develop or make or if it is indeed just not new or innovative enough. This is the hardest business model in the world in my opinion.