Imaginative minds aren't always the most practical, and translating a good idea into a profitable product can be fraught with regulatory hurdles, scam artists and high costs, experts say.
There are, however, some basic tips and sensible advice for inventors hoping to patent an idea and bring it to the marketplace.
For one, make sure you do an exhaustive online search of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's Web site, www.uspto.gov, to see if another inventor has beaten you to the punch, says Carol Oldenburg, a spokeswoman for the United Inventors Association, a 14-year-old group that offers a wide array of support for independent inventors.
She also strongly suggests an additional search at one of the patent office's more than 80 libraries around the nation, where officials will help guide neophytes through the process and provide them with more current information than is available online.
Once you've decided that you're "on to something," she says, make sure the idea is properly evaluated by an independent third party. She says her group and several universities around the nation, among other organizations and companies, provide "innovation-assessment programs" that feature expert and objective advice on new inventions. The cost can range anywhere from $300 to more than $600, Oldenburg says.
Her most fervent bit of advice: Do not deal with the multitude of invention-promotion companies that advertise in magazines and late-night television, promising to turn ideas into unimaginable riches.
"Basically, they say, 'Send us your idea, and we'll evaluate it,' " Oldenburg says. "They'll always say it's the best thing since sliced bread. And the next thing they'll want is money. Don't do it. You want to get an unbiased opinion."
She says inventors should be sure to have confidentiality agreements before revealing the details of any potentially lucrative idea.
The patent process can take two years or more. There are more than 6.7 million patents on file in the U.S. In some cases, Oldenburg says, inventors will file an application for a patent pending, a provisional application that requires them to develop the idea within one year.
Though some inventors face the regulatory challenges alone, Oldenburg suggests hiring a patent lawyer. The basic patent costs about $400. Attorney's costs for a fairly straightforward patent will cost anywhere from $8,000 to $10,000, Oldenburg says, so it's good to be fairly confident about the future market of the new idea.
Once the patent application is on file, it's time to start talking to potential licensees, says lawyer Michael Ram, a patent expert with Koppel, Jacobs, Patrick & Heybl in Thousand Oaks, Calif., who has worked with dozens of physician inventors. It's especially important for doctors to jump-start this process, he says, because most medical devices require a minimum of about 18 months of development.
"This way," he says, "you can have something that is (commercially viable) when the patent issues."
Ram, an engineer himself, says physicians have several key advantages over independent inventors. Physicians have a natural inclination toward improving the devices they use in their work. He says there are scores of examples of doctors patenting devices in their specialties. And this history has led many high-tech companies and potential manufacturers to adopt an open-door policy when it comes to physicians' ideas.
"Take ophthalmology," he says. "About 90% of designs for the intraocular lens were generated by physicians, rather than by corporations. As an in-house attorney, I can tell you that just about every (patent suggestion) from a physician is carefully reviewed."