Start Your Business
Have you invented the next big thing?
Tips for deciding when to apply for a patent
When Niki Singlaub first landed on the idea for an innovative collapsible water bottle, he did all the usual entrepreneurial steps. First, he ran the idea past his friends and family, and then created initial designs, and scanned the market for potential competitors. Finally, he contacted a patent attorney.
Singlaub, 42, founder and CEO of the Oregon-based Hydaway, had spent the past 20 years working in consumer products. So he understood the importance of protecting his idea—and the pitfalls of investing time and money into an already patented product.
While a patent may not always be necessary, at the very least, experts and experienced entrepreneurs alike, investigating whether a patent makes sense for your product is an essential piece of due diligence.
Consider the pros
Patents aren't just for big businesses. In fact, small businesses generated 19% of all patents in 2015, according to the JPMorgan Chase & Co. Institute. Regardless of your business size, a patent protects your invention from being poached by competitors, for up to 20 years, depending on the patent type. It can also help legitimize your invention, and make it more attractive to investors and clients.
"When we pitch the product to potential retailers and distributors, we get to say that the design is patented," says Eric Dubs, 30, the Oregon-based inventor of Bedphones, wireless headphones for sleeping. "That matters in the eyes of buyers, who don't want to start selling your product and then see a knock-off version at a competitor's store."
And the cons
Russell Tarleton, a partner at Seed IP, a Seattle firm, says there are a few scenarios in which a patent is ill-advised. For example, patents eventually become public, and once they do, other people can see details about your product.
If you have something you want to keep as a trade secret, and you think it's unlikely anyone could figure out how you created it, you might forgo a patent, Tarleton says.
Preserve your rights
If you determine a patent is right for your product it's important to start the process right away. "I tell my clients that they should be thinking about a patent from the moment the idea enters their head," Tarleton says.
The first step is to conduct a patent search, to see if someone else has already patented your idea. The US Patent Office offers online tutorials and other information. Or, consider hiring an attorney to navigate the process for you. Once the road is clear, file a patent application.
Singlaub says that filing a patent application gave him peace of mind so that he could start talking about his idea more publicly. "I could get out there and get the right kind of feedback," he says, "instead of just keeping it within my family."
Weigh your strategic options
For many entrepreneurs, the decision of whether to pursue a patent comes down to the cost. After Dubs invented his Bedphones in 2010, he had to choose between paying for his next manufacturing run, or paying an attorney to prepare his application.
"I couldn't afford both," says Dubs. The cost of preparing an application can range from the hundreds of dollars to over $10,000, depending on attorney fees and the complexity of the patent.
Choose your path
An engineer by trade, Dubs studied the patent requirements and process and decided to spend his money on a manufacturing run while he filed a patent on his own. Many attorneys caution against taking this path—small mistakes in applications can spiral into much larger problems.
Singlaub, however, went another route, investing in a lawyer to write his patent, and turning to Kickstarter to raise money for his product manufacturing costs.
Having a patent isn't the end of the road. You need to pay maintenance fees, ranging from a few hundred dollars to more than a $1,000, to keep your patent valid. And if competitors violate your patent, you'll need to hire legal help to defend it.
But if you have an idea worth protecting, patents are always worth exploring upfront. "You definitely want to at least talk to a patent attorney," says Singlaub, "and get a better sense for your options."
Kelly Kearsley is a Chase News contributor. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, CNN Money, Money Magazine, and Runner's World.