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Taking Your Idea from Concept to Reality

In the last eight months, I’ve seen an idea go from a concept to reality in a relatively short period of time. During this time, I’ve met a number of people who have had wonderful ideas of their own, but who told me that they just didn’t know how to take an idea to reality and get it into others’ hands. Hopefully, this article will provide some insight into how a process worked for me and enable others to learn how they, too, can get their products to market.

As occupational therapists we are always being asked to find creative ways to solve basic issues.  We need to solve obstacles that confront our patients to enable them to complete a task independently, for our goal as occupational therapists is to allow an individual to function at their highest level.  The majority of therapists are creative in a variety of ways.  We are always calling upon that right brain side of ourselves to find a simple way for our patient to perform an activity by themselves.  The technique must be easy to use and one the individual would want to use.  This latter part is very important.  We can design many tools that may assist an individual, but the individual must enjoy using it as well as finding it useful. I have worked as an occupational therapist for over 20 years in a variety of different settings; inpatient acute care, outpatient, rehabilitation, long term care and currently in schools.  Working as a preschool and grade school therapist, one area of concern with the children I assist is fine and perceptual motor development.  As therapists we know that these skills are important, not only for school, but for daily participation in activities.  Fine and perceptual motor skills are needed in order to draw and cut shapes.  Individuals with fine and or perceptual motor deficits may have difficulty completing these skills and require therapy intervention.

In the public school system, I service a variety of different diagnoses that include autism, cerebral palsy, cerebral vascular accident, blindness or decreased vision, sensory processing disorder, apraxia and fine and perceptual motor deficits.  This past year I had a student, Alex, who was diagnosed with retinopathy of prematurity and who was cognitively intact.  Alex desired to participate in all the same activities as his fellow classmates.  He and I worked on learning to use his hands to become his eyes.  He learned through touch to discriminate different shapes, but he wanted to learn how to draw and cut like his friends.  I investigated, with the assistance of his teacher, vision specialist and the Ohio School for the Blind, how I might teach a blind individual to draw and cut.  Traditional tracing tools either have a handle to hold in the center of the shape or consist of a thin template, such as plastic or heavy card stock, that you tape down and trace inside or around.  Great care is necessary to keep the tracing implement inside the template and not go over the edge. Even for many of my other preschoolers, these aids are not easy to use; the templates tend to move while tracing, especially when going around your stabilizing wrist. When using the template that is taped down, keeping the marker/crayon within the template can be difficult. 

With regards to cutting, blind children are generally only taught to snip with scissors because they cannot visually follow a line. But when someone desires to try to teach a blind child to cut, a frequently employed method is to make an aid by building up an edge that can be used as a cutting guide.  The edge is either made by building up layers of glue on paper or card stock or by taping down a cardboard template of the object to cut out.  The disadvantage of these methods is that the scissors can easily cut through the glue or cardboard.  Alex and I employed these methods to assist him with developing his ability to draw and cut shapes.  Although he was very determined to learn, our efforts did not meet with great success, and I decided it was time to be creative and solve the problem. 

I had witnessed my patients in other settings (rehab, out patient and long term care), frustrated with using a variety of aids to trace and cut. Like my preschoolers, their hand would frequently get in the way as they used tracing aids or the aid would move when they tried to trace around their hand. Cutting was also difficult for those with decreased fine motor and visual perceptual skills. I spoke with my engineer husband and asked for his assistance in developing tracing and cutting aids that would overcome these difficulties.  With his help, we designed two different products to meet the needs of my students and patients.  We call these products Cuttables and Traceables, and we hope to have them on the market very soon.

Learning to start a business was new to me, and I had much to learn to see if even getting my products manufactured and marketed was feasible. As I get closer to seeing my products on the market, I wanted to pass along some of the lessons learned in hopes of helping someone else who may be travelling down the same road as I, and that is the thesis of this article.

 I was fortunate that my husband had a rapid prototyper available for his use and was therefore able to make functional models of my ideas so that I could test them in the classroom. However, during testing, I needed to be careful not to “let the idea out” where someone else could steal it. At this point, we realized that I needed to learn more about how to protect my idea while working on product development. Once I was assured that my idea was protected, I was then able to pursue the actual startup of my business.

There is a relatively intuitive sequence of events that needs to occur to successfully get a business started, and from my experience, here are my best pointers.

  1. Explore Academic Resources Available to Help You. At one time a university in my area had been funded to help new businesses get started.  I found the point of contact in the Business and Marketing Department and made an appointment to speak with him. I learned that once there had been a program through which the university had even been able to purchase the rights outright for promising inventions, but the program was no longer funded. The professor told me that one of the most important things to do is to protect my intellectual rights to the invention. Even though the original program was no longer in existence, his department was willing to assist me in the area of marketing and developing a business plan if I desired to use their assistance.
  2. Protect Your Intellectual Rights. You can’t avoid the need to talk to people about your invention, but before you do, have them sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement. I found a number of examples on the internet and took bits and pieces from several to make my own, and I had each person with whom I spoke sign an agreement before divulging information about my invention to them. The agreement states that they acknowledge that the invention is my intellectual property and that they will keep information regarding the invention confidential.

  3. Talk to a Patent Attorney. If your idea is a good one that you want to get into the marketplace, you’ll need to find out if your idea is unique or if someone else has already thought of it and protected the idea with a patent. If you know what you’re doing, you can perform your own patent search using online resources or your local library, but being a novice in this arena, I felt more comfortable having a patent attorney do this search for me. When I learned my idea was unique, I had the patent attorney process an application for a provisional patent for the idea. This type of application is relatively easy to get through the U.S. Patent Office, so it’s fairly inexpensive to apply for. The provisional patent application affords some protection of one’s idea for up to a year to allow one to test the market, explore manufacturing costs, etc. before making the more expensive investment of applying for a utility patent. If you do not apply for the utility patent within a year of applying for the provisional patent, you may lose your ability to patent your product. And if you go public with your product before you file for the provisional patent, the one-year clock to file for the utility patent starts on the date you went public with your product.

Once you have decided your product is viable and you want to reserve the rights to the product on a permanent basis, you need to apply for the utility patent. The application fees for this type of patent can be more costly than the provisional patent, partially because detailed design drawings and descriptions must be submitted with the application.  When you apply for the utility patent, you may apply for patent coverage in the United States and/or for other countries.  When applying for your idea to be patented in other countries, each country has their own fee and schedule for renewal.  In the United States a utility patent protects your idea from being stolen in the US for 20 years. Once the application is approved, a utility patent is issued along with a patent number.

  1. Don’t give Your Idea Away! I learned that if it sounds too good to be true, count on it, it is. I had heard ads on the radio and television and seen websites that offer to take your invention and market it for you, and I decided to contact one of these firms in California. Without going into too much detail, the bottom line was that they would (supposedly) do a market survey, put together some professional ads and a video, and (supposedly) try to find a manufacturer who would license the rights to manufacture and sell the parts for me. The cost for this service ranged from about $10,000 to more than $20,000. However, after closer scrutiny I realized that there were no guarantees at all, and I could easily have lost control of my intellectual property. Another company I checked out wouldn’t sign a non-disclosure agreement, wanted me to send my actual prototypes to them, and wouldn’t return them to me. Not doing business with them was an easy decision! It was invaluable to have a patent attorney to advise me along these lines, too.
  2. Explore Your Market: Having a great idea is one thing, but having a great idea that other people will want to pay money for is another. Once I had applied for the provisional patent and my products were in a patent pending status, I was free to let the public see the products so that I could test their marketability. Soon after the products were in a patent pending status, I was fortunate enough to attend a statewide conference.  There I was able to put my products in front of a few thousand preschool professionals (teachers, therapists and administrators.) I wanted to get feedback on whether they thought the products would be useful in the classroom to develop the children’s skills as I had hoped and also to find out what price they thought would be reasonable to charge for the products. Fortunately, the feedback I received was overwhelmingly supportive of Traceables and Cuttables, and the pricing I had in mind seemed to be a reasonable amount, too. Remember, it is important to have patent protection before you go public with your product!
  3. Analyze The Cost of Selling Your Product: It was reassuring to learn that what I thought was a fair price to charge for Cuttables and Traceables seemed to be fair to my customers, too, and this established a goal to strive for. But you can’t sell a product if it doesn’t provide a profit, and the profit has to be worth the time and effort required to create the company and sell the products. Since I was still very early in the process, I did not have a very good idea of what the costs would be, and once I started itemizing the costs, I found that if I were going to be profitable, I needed to find the most efficient way to do a number of things. Before the products can be manufactured, the manufacturer has to create tooling to produce the products. Then there is a cost to manufacture each piece, followed by packaging, shipping, handling, as well as all the administrative costs that go into making a company function. This includes things such attorney fees and accountant fees, and at some point in the future, hopefully, my own place of business. As I was starting out, it was very educational to list all the steps in the process of getting the product into the hands of the customer. Once the cost of each step is listed, only then can you begin to get an idea of how much you will need to charge to make a profit, and you have to decide how much profit is acceptable to you. Fortunately,  the target price is sufficient to make manufacturing and selling Cuttables and Traceables feasible. Finding out what all the interim steps are to put your product into the customers’ hands can be complex, requiring lots of thought and research, phone calls and emails. It’s a daunting task, and I looked around to see who and what was available in my area to assist me in starting a business.

  4. Take Advantage of Your Local Government Resources. I learned that the local Chamber of Commerce can provide services for assisting small businesses get started. They can help with business plans; provide connections for marketing, accounting and other services, all of which have to be worked out before you can really get your business started. I found another resource called the Regional Growth Partnership (RGP), a state-funded organization to expand regional commerce. They agreed to assist me financially as well as by providing consulting services. Without the assistance of the RGP and the Chamber of Commerce, I would have had a much more difficult time getting started. Another valuable resource is the government program called SCORE.  They will also provide you with guidance, and it is a free service.  You may locate information regarding these agencies online.

There are many things that have to be taken into consideration to get your product on the market: who will manufacture the invention, how much will you be able to sell the items for, what will be the cost of manufacturing, assembly, inventory control, shipping, handling, advertising, marketing, web development, online sales set up and operation, credit card services, legal expenses and accounting services. Each of these things must be determined and costs estimated as closely as possible, because a good business plan requires it, and if you need to secure a business loan for startup expenses, the bank will require it also.

What I learned is that professional advice is not a luxury, it’s a requirement. Although the initial expense might seem daunting at first, the savings down the road can be immeasurable, and can possibly make the difference in your business succeeding or failing.

I know that there are many therapists who have great ideas, too, who would love to see their ideas find their way into the marketplace, but just don’t know how to get started. Hopefully, the insights and steps I’ve shared with you will convince you that it can be done, even by someone without a business background. It has been less than a year since I began this endeavor, and without the assistance of the agencies I mentioned, I would not be nearly this far along. The company is still in its infancy, but I hope to have products available for purchase very soon. If you are interested in learning more about Cuttables and Traceables, you can find more information on my website at www.CreateableLearningConcepts.com, and hopefully they will be available for sale very soon!

Biography

Elisabeth Wharton has been an Occupational therapist for the past 25 years. She is currently working in the public school system. You may contact her and view Traceables and Cuttables at www.CreatableLearningConcepts.com.

 
 
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