As a patent attorney, I have seen the full range of ideas from the brilliant to the downright crazy. Some inventions will go absolutely gangbusters and make millions of dollars. On the other hand, others will fail spectacularly and go nowhere in spite of great promise.
The Federal Government will spend $1.1 billion in the next four years to drive the “ideas boom”[i]. So how can you judge the inventions that will go the distance and are worth investment, from those that won’t and are not?
Queenslanders making money from everyday inventions
Queensland is by far the most inventive state in Australia. Queenslanders file more provisional patent applications for new inventions per capita than any other state. There is something in our Maroon blood which compels us to not only have a go, but more importantly to have the grit and determination to get a great idea over the line. Let’s meet some of the Queenslanders with some unassuming inventions that have become significant success stories.
Brad McCarthy almost lost his bogged four-wheel drive vehicle to the incoming tide on a secluded beach. He developed the MAXTRAX, a lightweight, strong and durable product that makes vehicle recovery a safe, simple, one-person task. Patents protect the critical features of the product, whereas trade marks protect the distinctive brand name MAXTRAX and the colour ORANGE. The product is now widely available around Australia and in over 30 countries.
Fiona Hargrave was fed up with clothes on her clothesline suffering from rainfall, bird and bat droppings, as well as damage caused by the harsh Queensland sun. She developed Clevacover for covering clotheslines to eliminate the need to rush home at the threat of an impending rain shower. Patents have enabled Hargrave to maintain a monopoly in the market. Since inventing the original Clevacover over 10 years ago, Hargrave now works full time in her thriving small business distributing products nationally.
Robert Battle noticed that live powerlines can become loose owing to poorly secured connecters, resulting in electrocution and even death. He developed the C-indicator so that linesmen can readily see an unsafe connection. Patents put a swift end to copying and competitors must instead compete with more expensive and less elegant solutions. The C-indicator has grown to become one of the greatest selling items of its class and is a common sight beneath new power pole installations all over the country.
Andrew Smith and Robert Ayala were sick of flies ruining a perfectly good barbeque. They invented ShooAway which is a simple tabletop propeller with reflective blades that repels the insects. Patents protect this simple although effective invention. The product is now widely distributed by major Australian retailers and is bringing an end to the Aussie salute.
Carl Williams despaired at the damage done when guard rails were conventionally bolted to house eaves to protect workers. In a modern twist on an ancient invention, he created the A-fold scaffold, an A-frame rail-scaffold located adjacent to eaves. In spite of the fact that conventional scaffolds have been around for thousands of years, the unique A-fold scaffold was patented. Williams simply cannot keep up demand and so he licenses his patented invention to scaffolders all around the country.
The secret ingredients to make money from an invention
If we carefully analyse each of the case studies above, we will start to see some trends emerging. From these trends, we can determine the secret ingredients of successfully making money from an invention.
Find a problem to be solved
Each of the inventors above identified a very clear problem to solve. The world is full of problems. The more annoying and widespread a problem – the greater the potential for a successful solution. The whole world will truly give thanks to the invention that finally fulfils a pesky long-felt need.
Every new technical area brings with it new problems to be solved, and so the potential for invention is endless. The smartphone has been with us for around decade. In that time, there have been thousands of new Apps developed to more cleverly solve problems.
Do not waste time trying to identify an ideal technical area in which to invent. Innovation exists everywhere and in everything. There is not a product in existence that cannot be improved. Look for opportunities in the field and the products that you know and understand because you will then have a real appreciation for the problems.
Develop a simple solution
For each of the simple case studies above, many of us would be well within our rights to say, “I could have invented that.” But we didn’t! The first step to inventing is to actually get away from the television and over to the drawing-board where development of a solution actually takes place.
Once a solution is developed, it is important to refine the idea to make it as simple as possible. Strip away all surpluses. The invention should be easy to understand, easy to make and easy to use to ensure that it is easy to sell.
Protect the invention
The products above have all been copied by infringers. Any successful and unprotected product will be copied in our modern competitive world. Unsuccessful products are rarely copied. In each case above, successful patent enforcement was achieved without any need to litigate.
It is important to engage a patent attorney to ensure that your invention is properly protected. In my experience, self-filed patent applications provide no meaningful protection. A patent attorney will help you identify new and commercially important features to provide the broadest reasonable protection.
There are a range of patent options available to protect products. It does not matter if your invention is not rocket science. The key question is “does the invention have the potential to make money?” If the answer is “yes”, then there is a usually suitable patent strategy that can be put in place for negligible cost when compared with the cost for developing the invention.
None of the products above were overnight success stories. I started dealing with many of the inventors over 10 years ago when their products were unknown and untried. In the early days, it was hard work with often little return.
Each success is a testament to the inventors who believed in their product and followed it through to completion with true Queenslander spirit. The products are the realisation of 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.
You may very well have the best invention in the world but if you don’t drive it, you won’t make a cent because nobody is going to do the hard work for you. Patents will help to make the job easier by removing any competition, or by providing options such as licencing options in the event of a dispute.
An invention is more likely to go the distance if it simply solves a well known problem. Protecting the invention to remove competition will assist committed inventors in either making money from their product or obtaining investment from others.