How many ideas should move from selected to implemented?
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We often think patents are the domain of legal counsel or technical experts but, in fact, if you have some patience and perseverance, they can reveal all sorts of ideas, insights, and market and technical knowledge that will stimulate your own new product ideas, and all at no cost to you, explains John Aceti.

Say you are playing golf and your buddy slices one into the rough. Frustrated, he takes a new ball out and adds two strokes to his game. Frustration being the mother of invention, or something like that, you think that a lost golf ball finder would be a pretty cool device to help improve one’s score. How would you go about finding or inventing a solution? Or, has it already been invented?

The easiest way of uncovering these answers, and get expert advice, is by reviewing the patent literature. We often think patents are the domain of legal counsel or technical experts but, in fact, if you have some patience and perseverance, they can reveal all sorts of ideas, insights, and market and technical knowledge that will stimulate your own new product ideas, and all for free.

One of the more friendly sites for free patent information is http://www.freepatentsonline.com/ but you can also go directly to the source at http://www.uspto.gov/. For example, if you were to search for Methods of Finding Lost Golf Balls (or search primary class 473/353) you would find that lost golf balls have created a well beaten path by inventors – but do not despair. With fresh curiosity and a broad view you will see which ideas were misguided or that missed the real market need.

Reading these patents reveals much about the need and the limitations inventors have confronted.

Continuing our example, your search will uncover inventions for making golf balls that: emit smoke, emit sound, reflect a specific wavelength of light, are radioactive, emit smell, or have an embedded micro-transmitter and more.

Moreover, reading these patents reveals much about the need and the limitations inventors have confronted. You will find complete details on how to: find balls obscured from sight, find balls using their innate florescence, embed electronics in a ball, or determine the landing location based on video derived flight trajectory. You may also pick up some trivia such as that the first patent addressing a means to assist in the finding of a lost golf ball was awarded U.S. Patent 1,620,290 in 1927.

Fortified with these ideas you are now ready to stimulate your own inventive thinking; consider these three methods of leveraging your research:

Invent into white space – where no one has invented before

To do so, you must take a bird’s eye view and look for uncovered territory. I find it helpful to differentiate all existing ideas by locating them on a 2×2 grid using key market differentiators for each axis, such as: cost vs. performance, or precision vs. convenience, or single-point solution vs. whole-solution.

Invent around existing ideas – work around an existing patent

That is, consider a patented idea you deem to have merit and think about how you would do it better. Times change, needs change and technology changes and if you’re looking at an issued patent, it’s at least 4 years old. Given your current perspective you may have a good chance of improving upon an old idea.

Invent by leveraging expired patents – use the ideas that are now in the public domain

This means you are free to use the idea. Generally, if a patent is over 17 years old, or the fees have not been paid, then the idea is free for the taking. When products have multiple features, sometimes a breakthrough product only needs one feature to be novel and otherwise leverage other ideas from the public domain. Many paper copier manufacturers use technology similar to the original Xerox patent but now focus on other aspects of the machine for innovation such as paper handling.

To solve the lost golf ball problem, one inventor used the differentiators “requires ball modification” (any ball modification to find a ball is a violation of PGA rules) and “cost to manufacture.” Plotting ideas onto the a 2×2 grid quickly separated most patents into the “requires ball modification” quadrants. Then all ideas were further separated by the perceived “cost to manufacture.” The resulting grid revealed a white space quadrant having no ideas that both did not require ball modification and were inexpensive to manufacture. This lead to an idea and leveraging an existing patent from a different field for finding lost objects. The new idea resulted in patent 7,119,838 – method and imager for detecting the location of objects – which was issued and a product made.

So the next time you have an idea, want to stimulate your own inventive thinking, or you want to test your idea against others, consider a quick search through the patent literature. It’s free and contains a wealth of good information. One caveat – patents don’t require proof that they work so take what you see with a grain of salt.

John Aceti is president of Aceti Management Consulting, a firm dedicated to helping teams innovate new products and business services and for tackling complex technical and business problems using its 123facilitaiton process.

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