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Making It Happen

In the last eight months, I've seen an idea go from concept to reality in a relatively short period of time. I've also 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 get an idea into others' hands. Maybe I can help them.

Working as a preschool and grade school therapist in the public school system, I serve a variety of children with different diagnoses including autism, cerebral palsy, stroke, blindness or decreased vision, sensory processing disorder, apraxia and fine- and perceptual-motor deficits. Fine- and perceptual-motor skills are needed to draw and cut shapes.

Alex

This past year I had a student, Alex, who had been diagnosed with retinopathy of prematurity and was cognitively intact. Alex desired to participate in all the same activities as his fellow classmates. He and I worked on learning to make his hands his eyes. He learned through touch to discriminate different shapes, but he wanted to learn how to draw and cut like his friends.

With the assistance of his teacher, a vision specialist and the Ohio School for the Blind, I investigated 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.

When someone desires to teach a blind child to cut, he or she frequently makes an aid by building up an edge with layers of glue or on paper or card stock that can be used as a cutting guide, 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.

I decided it was time to be creative and solve the problem. I spoke with my husband, an engineer, and asked for his assistance in developing tracing and cutting aids that would overcome these difficulties. 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.

To Market, to Market!

It 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 I needed to learn more about how to protect my idea while working on product development.

I found a contact in the business and marketing department of a nearby university and made an appointment to speak with him. He told me 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.

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. I had each person with whom I spoke sign an agreement before divulging information about my invention to him or her. In it each acknowledged that the invention is my intellectual property and that he will keep information regarding the invention confidential.

Talk to a Patent Attorney

You'll need to find out if your idea is unique or if someone else has already 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; 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.

The provisional patent application affords some protection of an 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.

The application fees for utility patents can be more costly than the provisional patents, partially because detailed design drawings and descriptions must be submitted with the application.

When you apply for the utility patent, you may apply for coverage in the United States and/or other countries. Each country has its own fee and schedule for renewal. In the United States a utility patent protects your idea from being stolen here for 20 years. Once the application is approved, the patent and number are issued.

Explore Your Market Carefully

Having a great idea is one thing, but having a great idea that other people will want to pay for is another.

I had heard ads on the radio and television and seen Web sites that offer to take your invention and market it for you, and I decided to contact one of those firms in California. They would (supposedly) do a market survey, put together some professional ads and a video, and 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, there were no guarantees, and I could easily have lost control of my intellectual property. Another company 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.

Once my products were in a patent-pending status, I was free to let the public see the products and test their marketability.

Soon after, 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 as 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.

Analyze Sales Costs

You can't sell a product if it doesn't provide a profit. 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 was 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 and all the administrative costs that go into making a company function. This includes things such as attorney and accountant fees, and at some point in the future, hopefully, my own place of business.

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.

Great Resources

Finding out what all the steps are to getting your product into the customers' hands can be complex, requiring lots of thought, research, phone calls and emails. I looked around to see who and what was available in my area to assist me in starting a business.

I learned that the local chamber of commerce can provide services for assisting small businesses in getting started. They can help with business plans and 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 provide consulting services. Without the assistance of the RGP and the chamber of commerce, I would have had a much more difficult time.

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.

Step by Step

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?

A good business plan requires answers to all these questions; 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.

 

 
 
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