By Ron Docie, Sr.

openinnovationWhen I started in the business of pitching inventions to companies more than 30 years ago, the Not Invented Here syndrome was alive and well.

If it wasn’t invented at the company, they weren’t interested. It appears, however, as if the flagpole is bent in the other direction. Everyone is abuzz about “open innovation.”

Is this to suggest that major corporations have made a big change in their attitude and are openly inviting outside inventors to submit their inventions to them? Yes and no.

In some companies, to adopt “open innovation” simply means to be more willing to hear the ideas of employees and implement creative ideas and cost savings improvements that would help the company. It also means that they won’t necessarily pay for such ideas. For other companies it means being more willing to collaboratively share ideas within the industry in order to facilitate synergies. In both of these cases, open innovation doesn’t necessarily mean that companies are more interested in receiving ideas from outside inventors.
Regardless of what you call it, I have seen a three-decade trend of companies willing to accept inventions from outside inventors even before open innovation became the buzzword it is today.

It’s said that necessity is the mother of invention. In each historic recession or economic downturn, one of the first budgets to go is research and

Companies need quick, positive financial results and R&D’s long-term outlook is a convenient target for budget cuts. In these cases companies forsake investment in the future in lieu of obtaining immediate profits to satisfy the stockholders and to maintain companywide job security. Each time this happens, many companies lose the number of new products they have available, grow stagnant and at some point someone picks their head up and says, we need new ideas and new products.

If these new ideas are not coming from within, the company must look to their vendors, gain feedback from their customers or pay careful
attention to outside independent inventors. In many companies, there are enough new ideas coming from their vendors and customers
that they don’t need or want to deal with outside inventors. In other circumstances, companies have a desire to look at ideas from outside
inventors in order to broaden the range of new products they have to offer.

Working with outside inventors is a double-edge sword. At times inventors are difficult to work with, which causes frustration and compels companies to close this access to inventor-driven innovation.

In turn, when companies have a positive experience working with an inventor and the invention turns a profit and boosts the market share, they tend to seek and accept ideas from outside inventors. At recent international tradeshows, companies have indicated to me that they have a goal
of 10 or 20 percent of their new product innovation coming from outside inventors.

Lifetime Brands has an extensive product development department with more than 30 engineers and product developers. According to the manager of this group, last year the company introduced 4,500 new products and 20 of those were from outside inventors. (Full disclosure: Lifetime Brands has worked with Edison Nation, a sister company of Inventors Digest.

Times have never been better for independent inventors to submit inventions to companies, nor has it been easier. Retailers and manufacturers are increasingly offering encouragement to inventors, including inventor friendly Web sites like Edison Nation, Quirky and more that direct the inventor entirely through the process of how to submit their invention.

Time has also changed the way inventions are submitted to companies and what they want to see. I find the vast majority of companies,
big and small, prefer to have submissions done via e-mail with simple attachments. I submit confidentiality agreements to companies
via simple e-mail attachments and the companies typically return either with a signature in PDF format or fax it.

I cannot remember the last time I used a fax machine to submit an invention. I will sometimes submit a patent via PDF, though normally companies only need the patent number to research on their own. Certainly it is acceptable to send hard copies of descriptions and drawings of your invention by mail. One problem with this is, once the person in the company receives it, they may want to share this information with product and sales managers, engineers and others to get feedback in order to make a decision as to whether they want to proceed with the invention.

If they received this submission by e-mail, it is much easier for them to simply forward to the responsible parties and save time and effort all
the way around.

A picture is worth a thousand words and a video is even more. With today’s technology it is easy to offer both, even if you don’t have your invention made yet. Designers can make a 3-D drawing and provide both an illustration and a short 20-30 second video clip if necessary.

Inventors can save a lot of money in prototyping and product development by having virtual drawings of their invention made, rather than the actual prototype. In some circumstances, though, it is essential to have a working prototype. The next question is, how much information do you need to send them: a drawing, an illustration, photograph, video or an actual working model?

This underscores the importance of communicating with the right people and companies ahead of time to determine how it is that they want to receive information about the invention and how developed the invention needs to be in order for them to consider it further.

Companies have different thresholds in how they work with independent inventors and how open they are to “open innovation.”

Even though there is no standard rule of thumb, now is the time to put your face, your ideas and your inventions out there.

Ask and you may receive.

Editor’s note: This article appears in the July 2010 print edition.