The Business of Invention

Mark Sheahan (Inventor In Residence at the British Library) recently gave me some tips on how to make more money from inventing.

Here is the checklist he uses when advising Inventors via the British Library ‘Ask- an-Expert’ service:

Best solution: Is their idea the best solution to solve the problem for the target market?

Patent search: The importance of getting a professional patent search carried out, before spending significant amount of time and money on the idea -and who to use.

Market and size: Ways of finding details on the market and its size, to gauge whether it is worth commercially pursuing. Also, how they intend to reach this market, or help with it.

Manufacturability: If a physical product, can it be made, is the cost sustainable and is it fit for purpose? Getting ‘proof of concept’. Maybe showing them how I think it should be made can help.

Adding value: Most new ideas are generally better or cheaper – ideally both. I look for ways of adding value to the invention, so it offers more.

Reality check: I talk about “Getting off the train” now and again. An objective approach asking yourself the question “Is this worth continuing and, if so, am I moving in the right direction?” can often lead to a fresh perspective.

IPR strategy: Securing strong defendable intellectual property rights (IPR), be it a patent, registered or unregistered trademarks and design rights, copyright or, more commonly, a strategic combination (advice and direction).

Avoiding sharks: Avoiding invention promotional companies and doing proper due diligence on everyone – companies or individuals – that you intend to do business with (how to do this).

Business Models: What is the best way to set up the business, taking into account the product or service they are offering and how they want to exploit it?

The Business Plan: Best way is to compile a Business Plan with a focus on the most important commercial elements of their venture.

Contracts: The various contracts you will need to understand in this business, for example NDA’s, shareholder, licence, distributor and agency agreements etc. and maybe many more.

Funding options: How to get investors and/or available grants.

Negotiation: Getting the best deal, whether negotiating for a cost of something small or in a full blown licensing deal (some of the basic tricks to use).

Licensing: Why license? Plus the general terms and conditions of a licence.

Timeframes: Being realistic about the timescales involved in having an idea and making money from it, plus coming up with an exit strategy, if things go wrong, or right.

Objectives: What do they need to do to get the outcome they want? Clarity of intent can help direct them.

Re-motivation: This involves encouraging them to move forward, but may be in a different and more focused way, e.g. ‘’I like it, but …’’.

On-going support: Advise joining Inventors’ Clubs/organisations. Aside from providing a peer group where many find themselves ‘in the same boat’, they offer an opportunity of sharing experience, advice and expertise on many aspects of invention development.

I’ve also attached a related article Ask A Expert British Library Mark Sheahan. Contact me for further details.

Invention dedications

If you fancy having an invention created in your name or dedicated to a loved-one, do make a small donation via the button on the right and drop me an email with the details of the individual concerned as well as any preferences as to application area etc.

As with all IOTD ideas, the invention will be published here -ie in the public domain of the loyal readership of this blog.

I’ll do my best to come up with something suitable within a week (and email you the link).

All income via this process will go towards the InventorCentre, as usual.
(pra at patrickandrews dot com)


In silicon valley, where they aren’t shy about making money, it’s actually seen as much riskier to work for a major corporation than a startup. If the startup goes down, you have some valuable, transferable experience which will get you hired by some other garage company in the raft of such organisations. If a big company fails, it sinks like a stone, flooding the market with competitors for jobs on the next bandwagon.

Elsewhere, we desperately need to develop some healthier attitudes to risk. Leaders (remember them?) have to be prepared to defend investing even public money in experimental ways. Cherry picking, ie looking for a lottery win-sized certainty, via endless ‘due diligence,’ is flawed and sends the wrong message: “Don’t do anything until you get the guarantee of a big slice of shiny investment.”

Making money
isn’t necessarily synonymous with greed. Graft need not be unglamorous. Ideas aren’t cheap.

Crazy Inventors

Maybe you do have to be slightly crazy to invent anything. Certainly it helps to be insanely optimistic if you expect to make money from within our benighted intellectual property system.

Here is further evidence to this effect, from no less a source than a recent Sony patent.

You’d think that Sony would have a greater appreciation of inventiveness than to treat it as providing entertainment for idiots guffawing at a programme entitled ‘Crazy Inventors’.

It’s been a long time since the Walkman first appeared. I wonder why?

No such thing as a free idea?

I frequently hear comments such as “Oh, ideas are a dime a dozen, it’s only the moneymaking application that counts.” All we need, it seems, is a surefire way to screen out any dud ones quickly and we can generate advances with almost no mis-hits.

I’m an avid admirer of those who develop and deliver great products, but only a tiny fraction of inventions is even distantly capable of being profitably deployed -just look in any patent database. Does that mean that the vast majority of invention is hardly worth doing? (We used, by the way, to expect this curiosity-driven discovery from Universities, but then we started hiring people for conformity rather than creativity).

Well the point is that, sadly, there is no algorithm for producing insights that are guaranteed to make a buck -or even work. We simply need to have lots of ideas and try out a large subset of those, before we start any serious cherrypicking. This undertaking can’t be reliably short-circuited and it therefore isn’t usually a cheap process.

Just having the the simplest of ideas always costs somebody, however. It takes a huge amount of effort (and surplus resource) to educate someone to a position where they have the experience (and spare time) to think up anything genuinely new.

All ideas cost, even if they aren’t, individually, of any value.

This doesn’t of course mean that you can’t give ideas away. Here’s a scheme which allows people to do so after they have died. I say, why wait?

Statu Pupillari?

It concerns me that Universities are now being expected to act as sources, sometimes the only sources, of invention. I don’t really see this as their job (which is surely about discovering and communicating new knowledge). The argument runs along the lines of

“We taxpayers spent a huge amount of money on research and so now it’s time that it resulted in lots of jobs.” It doesn’t work like that at all, but many of our politicians act as if it did. Universities, for the most part, screen out inventiveness…it’s very hard to get a draft paper or a grant application through the peer review process (especially when it’s all anonymous and so supports gutless competitive sniping).

One of the most irritating recent developments is that Universities are starting to claim ownership of their students’ intellectual property by default. Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the discussion about whether IP can be meaningfully defined (it’s obviously not the same as other forms of property). I’m hearing stories on campuses about Universities which, when they allow a graduate student to matriculate, assume ownership of everything which they think up during their time at the Institution. Undergraduates aren’t yet included in this process, but they may well soon get trapped too (I just came across this article which says that US Universities demand to own even undergraduate inventions…despite the rates charged by these institutions for access to tuition and facilities. This is bare-faced, short-termist profiteering -Universities don’t make people have ideas).

A student appears, filled with enthusiasm at getting a place on an interesting Master’s or a high profile Doctoral programme. They are routinely asked to sign lots of administrative forms (with no independent guidance). One of these will, either implicitly or in small print, be an agreement that the University owns all their intellectual output until they leave.

The law, in the UK, says that employees have no choice in this. You sign up to get a salary and they own what you create (at least if it’s related to what they pay you for, even if you do it at the weekend). I think that’s unfair but at least it’s clear (and these days, some farsighted employers are beginning to understand that a meaningful revenue sharing scheme is a good way to motivate smart employees). Postdocs? Guess what, you have to do the dirty work with little chance of a real job and they own everything you think up.

Graduate students aren’t employees, however. They don’t in general get a salary, nor do they therefore have employment rights. I was once discussed, in a University committee, as “having ideas incompatible with my status as a research student.” As if there are some modes of thought only accessible to Professors…how patronising. It is true that a graduate student may be sponsored by some business and receive direction and support from an inspiring supervisor. Whenever that’s true, then certainly all parties must share in any profit from the ideas generated. Universities often offer revenue sharing schemes (although the deals on offer look like nothing that anyone would negotiate on their own behalf, being laughably one-sided). They may also provide a measure of protection for graduate students who might be accused of infringement by eg some patent troll or nowinnofee attorney. Inevitably, this would result in an out of court settlement, (ie goodbye IP) since UK universities have always backed down from such litigation.

The real issue I have with this process, which is becoming increasingly common as Universities scrabble to do whatever Government tells them, is not even the sleight of hand at matriculation -it’s the inbuilt assumption that a University can somehow make money from its students’ inventions…that it understands how to…that it has the grit and focus necessary to do so. This is usually fantasy and the financial data on exploitation support this conclusion. That is exactly why certain Universities, the ones with business ability, are now forming their own commercialisation companies, free of academic control.

Idea envy

Since everyone else who publishes anything online is currently engaged in a frenzy of ‘Top ten X of 2008’ articles, I thought I might as well join in. Here is a selection of some of the inventions which I’ve come across recently which I really wish I’d thought up.

Many hover on the border between invention and design and none rely on the recent discovery of anything in the least nano-quantum-ribonucleic.

Suntan tattoo Combining two of the silliest ideas into something rather beautiful.

Pin clock
I just like the emergence and there’s a better idea lurking here, which I can’t bring to mind, yet.

Paper bottle Water soaks paper, and yet…

Space mug Can it even be called coffee if it’s translucent?

Bubblewrap calendar Better than squeezing zits.

Secure mug Definitely one for the OCD/retentive types. I’d have made an individually shaped bung for each cup, in order to counter cupjacking. See also this Identifiable cup.

Anti-theft humiliation pen Just the kind of social engineering device which I love.

One-handed watch Confused by two hands on a watchface and burdened by a surfeit of precision? This is a really appropriate design.

Engineering designer who casts flows A satisfying and elegant approach -beats the old Navier Stokes equations any day.

Expandable bookcase All this needs is a motor drive (and I’d personally want the Thunderbirds theme playing as it expands).

Playpump Once again, the power of play comes to the rescue.

Hamster powered shredder
Two gadgets in one with a humorous twist. Pity about the requirement for a hamster.

Bottle stool Not as sure about this one as I was when bookmarking it.

Grown chairs Utterly great, if a little slow in production.

Touch shot I thought I had invented this one myself -until I came across this impressive implementation in a real product.

Prior art

IOTD is a source of prior art, whatever you may think of its value. Amongst those of us who would rather compete in the spheres of ideation and product development than in the courts and who think that worthwhile research has to be publicly available, such defensive publishing is becoming more widely accepted.

Alternatives to the Patent Arms Race: An Empirical Study of Defensive Publishing

This article by Joachim Henkel and Stefanie Pangerl is based on an empirical study of defensive publishing. It relies on 56 interviews with intellectual property experts and finds that 70% of the companies in its sample make use of defensive publishing. It argues that defensive publishing will be used more actively in the future since it can contribute to solving the aggravating problems of the patent arms race, of an increasing likelihood of inadvertent infringement, and of patent trolls.

Engineering vs Inventing

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the differences between Engineers and Inventors.

Engineers have to do the tough job of making things work. When I was a child the people who were in charge of the local shipyard still wore bowler hats. These were the Engineers: the men who had the final say in terms of what was possible (there were no female Engineers then).

There has always had to be a big element of conservative caution in how Engineers do their work. When my family boards an aircraft, I want that put together by the planet’s most reliable people. And yet, the guy who first came up with the idea of powered flight was not a conservative thinker. The idea is one thing, actually taking off is another.

The people I know who style themselves ‘Inventor’ tend to have some personal attributes which are different from those of the Engineers I deal with:

Engineering is a team sport in which numbers of people, each with some technical specialism or particular experience, need to work together to design and build complex systems. Engineers will find it hard to find suitable technical challenges without being part of a team. Engineers mostly work for big organisations (sadly it’s often as employees in pseudo-military hierarchies) and tend to get narrower and narrower experience, making innovation more and more difficult. Their main enemy is boredom. It’s mind numbing for most engineers to have to deal with the nitty-gritty of contract negotiation for example. They therefore tend to shy away from dealmaking and, as long as the work is interesting, they will go along for the ride. Inventors, by contrast don’t tend to play nicely with others and are often highly tuned to the possibility of making personal wealth. Maybe they spend too much time around lawyers.

Resistant to education (and to conformity in general)
Engineers have to spend a long time being academically tutored and trained. Only then can they apply judgement, design codes, standards and recognised methods to enable effective implementation. As in any profession, novel thinking is often discouraged (despite what might be said to the contrary). Some of the best Inventors can be technically naive and spend time on ideas which Engineers could prove, from first principles, were groundless. Inventors however, almost never talk themselves out of trying things which look promising. This certainly leads to some waste of effort, but also allows exploration of areas where their professional brethren would choose not to go…

Here are some illustrations of the value of such naivete:
If I had thought about it, I wouldn’t have done the experiment. The literature was full of examples that said ‘you can’t do this’.
Spencer Silver on the work that led to the unique adhesives for 3-M “Post-It” Notepads.

A man has been arrested in New York for attempting to extort funds from
ignorant and superstitious people by exhibiting a device which he says will convey the human voice any distance over metallic wires so that it will be heard by the listener at the other end. He calls this instrument a telephone. Well-informed people know that it is impossible to transmit the human voice over wires.

News item in a New York newspaper, 1868.

Very interesting Whittle, my boy, but it will never work.
Cambridge Aeronautics Professor, when shown Frank Whittle’s plan for the jet engine.

What, sir, would you make a ship sail against the wind and currents by lighting a bonfire under her deck? I pray you, excuse me, I have not the time to listen to such nonsense.
Napoleon Bonaparte, when told of Robert Fulton’s steamboat, 1800s.

When I attended College, as an Engineering undergraduate, I expected to learn a significant amount about the process of inventing. That didn’t happen, but now I’m putting together a Master’s-level course in Invention. If you know of anyone who would like to invest in, or host, such a venture, please ask them to get in touch via