Information, enthusiasm, empathy dominate the USPTO’s annual showcase to help inventors of all kinds
An Impactful Year
My first year as USPTO director was about gathering input via many formats; now it’s time for more action on meaningful change
They are mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters like all the rest of us. Unlike all the rest of us, they are master builders.
The invention process can involve heavy lifting that almost always requires multiple hands. Panelists at “Invention-Con 2023: Building Tomorrow’s Innovation” were powerful reminders of the collaborative spirit of inventing and entrepreneurship; the indisputable importance of intellectual property; and a world of resources that are waiting to be utilized.
The three-day information and inspiration smorgasbord, held mostly virtually from USPTO headquarters May 10-12 in Alexandria, Virginia, addressed the invention experience from multiple diverse vantage points: Small and large inventors. IP experts. Government officials. Their subject matter was even more diverse: Inventing. Marketing. Licensing. Prototyping. Patents. Trademarks. Manufacturing. Branding. Resources.
Many of those who spoke are more than master builders. They are master storytellers who encouraged and entertained a national audience with anecdotes that had many nodding their heads while sharing the joys, disappointments, and discoveries that are partners in this journey.
You can do this
How many times have you thought of a possible invention but told friends, “I’m sure someone must have thought of this already”?
This was Daria Walsh.
She was frustrated by the fact she could not wear some of her favorite long necklaces with any outfit. Amazed to learn there was no product to solve the problem, she created Infinity Clips—a DIY necklace shortener made to work with thin chain necklaces.
A panelist on “Turning Passion to Profits,” Walsh told Invention-Con she had just $500 to start with. But her curiosity, determination, and optimism were priceless.
“I had to be creative,” she said. “I made my own prototypes. I remember going through the aisles of hardware stores and craft stores piecing things together.
“I went through a hundred prototypes before I put it together. I thought it was a simple product, and it wasn’t as simple. I wanted it to fit a range of styles and thicknesses.”
After getting a prototype she could bring to market, she had to figure out a way to “bootstrap” her way through the patenting process.
She watched YouTube videos to learn how to write her own provisional patent application (PPA). “For a micro entity, it’s like $70 or $80 to file. That was the starting point.”
The PPA allowed her to test her product “for a year to see if it had market potential before I started investing more money into it.”
The demand was there, and manufacturing was not that difficult. Walsh, who received a utility patent in March 2022, spoke plainly about being resistant to challenges:
“You are not going to know what you are doing on Day 1. You are going to figure it out as you go. Don’t let it stop you that you don’t know where to start.
“Just go. Just start.”
Panelists were in unanimous agreement about the importance of intellectual property protection.
A co-panelist with Walsh, Sheilisa McNeal-Burgess, founded Fria LLC—a lifestyle/jewelry brand that develops technology-based cooling solutions to combat hot flashes during menopause. “Before we had product technology or anything, we knew we had to get a patent,” she said.
Shawn Mastrian, CEO of Darkside Scientific, an advanced lighting company in Medina, Ohio, went so far as to say:
“If you have something valuable, somebody is going to steal it from you. That is the reality of life.
“I’m not going to say that is OK, but you have to be OK with that. You have to let them take the pennies off the counter and keep the goal locked in the safe under the counter.”
He said he could not overstate the value of intellectual property as “something for our shareholders that continues to drive and maintain value. From my perspective, my intellectual property is the foundation. It’s the soul of our company.”
Delanie West, a creative marketing, business, and brand development leader, was another panelist on the topic “Know your value, equity and ownership.”
“Intellectual property is everything,” she said. It means “You have created something that you can defend. You created something that doesn’t infringe on an existing intellectual property. Also, you are generating value whether you are marketing it, selling it yourself or licensing it.”
Panelists emphasized that the value of IP encompasses not just patents, but trademarks and copyrights as well.
Co-panelist Amber Lambke, founder and CEO of Maine Grains, oversaw the transformation of a former jail into a grain mill in rural Maine. “We have restored grain production to Maine and our region, and rebuilt the infrastructure that makes it possible to clean and mill those grains into delicious human grade food for bakers, brewers, and chefs around the Northeast,” she said.
Lambke said she quickly realized the importance of “building our brand and our visual look as a product, and how we chose to protect our mark.” It was crucial for her to “protect some of the design elements, knowing that and having seen that sometimes brands are vulnerable to larger companies that can use that look to squeeze you out of the marketplace.”
In “Branding and Trademark Protection,” IP attorney Andrea Evans was asked: “How soon do you think a trademark owner should begin this trademark registration process?”
She replied without hesitation. “That is the million-dollar question. Ask it yesterday. How soon? Immediately. And there are a lot of misconceptions about trademarks.”
Some people are of the mistaken notion that a patent and trademark are the same thing. A patent is a property right granted to an inventor by the USPTO that excludes others from making, using, offering for sale, selling, or importing that invention. A trademark is a word, phrase, symbol, design, or a combination thereof that identifies and legally differentiates your goods or services from others.
Matt Nuccio, president of toys and games company Design Edge, said, “The trademark is essential in the toy business. Often times it’s been worth more than a patent, because products become brands”—with Cabbage Patch Kids among the many examples.
There is help and more help
Mark Madrid was giving tribute. And he was getting emotional.
An associate administrator for the Office of Entrepreneurial Development at the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), Madrid recently visited a female small business owner in Idaho who has 90-some patents. He told Invention-Con:
“All she did was transform her beer distillery technology process, and during COVID she was able to use that technology for PPE and masks that were transported all over the world to save lives.”
Madrid added: “I lost my dad to COVID-19. I come from small business DNA. My parents built a welding business in the Texas panhandle. Clearly, we had a moment there that was indescribable.
“It was raw and emotional. I got to hold that mask.”
Madrid explained that the transformation would not have been possible without the business owner leveraging U.S. agencies such as SBDC and SCORE “to change and save lives.”
SBDCs (Small Business Development Centers) provide free marketing, financing, and business-related assistance to local entrepreneurs in all states as well as some U.S. territories. They are part of a partnership between the SBA and usually a local university.
SCORE is a resource partner of the SBA that provides free mentoring and education to small business owners. Its expert volunteers have “been-there-and-done-that expertise and bring that to the small businesses we serve,” said SCORE CEO Bridget Weston. “We primarily do that through mentoring.”
Through its main programming and individual workshops, Invention-Con also highlighted U.S. grant opportunities and the free services provided by the USPTO—including its Pro Bono offerings. In her introductory comments, USPTO Director Kathi Vidal said: “We are committed to doing whatever we can to help you build tomorrow’s innovation and help you succeed.”
This all fostered an aura of enthusiasm and encouragement that began with Daria Walsh during Day 1’s first panel and continued right through the final panel on Day 3.
Connie Inukai, who became an inventor at 70 with three registered trademarks and a patent, told that in-person audience: “Don’t listen to anybody who says you can’t do it.”
Find the resources you need to start and support your IP protection journey at uspto.gov/inventors.