Some lower-cost options to help keep you motivated.

I receive a lot of emails from inventors who don’t have the money to spend on a patent—and who ask if I can connect them with a partner who will finance and license their
patents in exchange for a split of the profit. I’m not kidding.

I hesitate to use the word “naive,” because we all had to start someplace. But a good idea is only an idea until we prove that it is sufficiently novel to qualify for a patent, and that it offers an
entrepreneur or a potential licensee a proprietary advantage in the marketplace. Good ideas are abundant; promoters who will run with someone else’s bare idea are essentially nonexistent.

To interest a promoter—better known as an angel investor or your rich Uncle Herbert—you’ll almost always need the following:

• A professional patent search with a written patentability opinion that compares the claims of prior art (issued patents and published patent applications, existing products, etc.) with the assumed claims for your invention. This means engaging a patent attorney or patent agent at a cost of up to $1,200, or even more if your invention is complicated.

• Market research demonstrating that people or businesses are waiting for your invention, and will buy it when it becomes available.

• A prototype in order to show and tell the features and benefits of your invention.

Even with these three items convincingly prepared, an angel will not be easy to convince. Angels prefer to invest in early production that shows promising sales demand. They generally will not invest in a raw idea no matter how brilliant it appears to be, or how many millions of the eventual product you think the public will buy.

OK, now that I’ve ruined your day, let me present an approach that won’t shut you down completely—even if it won’t be as effective as properly financing the three points above.

Patent search alternatives

The best way to search is to save the typical $800-$1,200 and obtain a professionally written patentability opinion based on a professional search. Remember, a favorable search does not
guarantee that you’ll get a patent, or even if you get one that the claims will support a strong proprietary advantage to you or your licensee.

The next-best way to search is to grit your teeth a little and obtain a search that provides a “file or don’t file” patentability opinion—in other words, an opinion that does not explain its basis.
After all, at the relatively low cost involved (about $250), the patent attorney or patent agent can’t spend two or three hours or more detailing why you should consider filing or abandoning.
Caution: Most ethical patentability opinions will recommend against filing. So this kind of search will leave you frustrated because you “just knew that no one had ever thought of your great idea before you did.”

The last and desperate way to search is to do it yourself. A self-search is easy on one’s teeth, and not a bad idea if you use it only as a preliminary means to convince yourself that your idea may be novel or not. But even the most competent professional searches can miss prior art that the patent examiner may find. And a patent application based on a self-search has a much higher probability of being rejected. The typical cost of a self-search ranges from nothing to $10,000.

Saving on market research

As for market research, you mainly want to know whether potential users of your invention will buy it. A professional market research is usually beyond budget limits.

Most of us count on intuition and the reaction of friends and relatives, neither of which are objective and reliable. But the possibilities for market research are too vast to cover here. In next
month’s issue, I’ll list 13 ways to assess the marketability of your invention, many of which cost very little.

Prototype alternatives

Prototypes have a number of uses but only two basic types: physical and virtual.

The best physical prototype is generally not inexpensive. Professional methods available today, such as stereolithography, selective laser sintering, 3D printing and machining, result in the expectation of a polished and functional prototype. The typical cost is $500 to $2,000.

The second-best physical prototype is the same as above but non-functional (typical cost: $200 to $500). The third-best physical prototype is homemade from whatever odds and ends we can cobble together (typical cost: $10 to $100).

The virtual prototype is a sell sheet or animated video that depicts your invention, created using 3D computer-aided design to produce an image that appears to be photography of a physical product. The typical cost is $500 to $2,000. The great advantage of the virtual prototype is that you can circulate it to an unlimited number of prospects. A physical invention has to travel serially, often with months between reviews by prospects.

Plan for big expenses

This scant outline of steps and rough estimates of cost may be sobering and discouraging to the would-be inventor, but this is reality.

I know firsthand the agony of having several “great” ideas and not being able to act on them. When I was first married and paying for a fixer-upper home, a used car and a baby, I didn’t have a dollar left over with which to begin my invention projects. I was even more frustrated because no one explained to me the essential steps and expense that I’ve presented here. No one said,
“Jack, be patient, keep a notebook of your dreams, and make plans for how to earn enough money to develop your inventions without an economic disadvantage to your family.”

So, to the inventor who is itching to begin, be aware that you can start for as little as $250 for a competent patent search. The result will most often be that prior art exists, and you are advised
against filing a patent application. If the result is encouraging, be aware of the costs ahead, and don’t go forward unless you have a way to pay the going price. Inventing is not a practical, pay-as-you-go project. Expenses come in big chunks; service providers expect a substantial amount upfront.

Above all, remember that to invent is to gamble. Be sure you can afford to lose.