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You Have an Idea for an Invention ... Now What?

The Czech inventor Stanley Povoda, nicknamed 'The Robot Man' poses with his iron robot family at his home in Prague, Czech Republic.
The Czech inventor Stanley Povoda, nicknamed 'The Robot Man' poses with his iron robot family at his home in Prague, Czech Republic.
Jarmila Kovarikova/isifa/Getty Images

Brilliant ideas strike people all the time. Perhaps you've been inspired at some point with the notion for an innovative product or process.

It doesn't have to be the cure for cancer. Maybe it's a device that makes for easier clean-up after Fido; or a better way to re-seal opened potato-chip bags.

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Inventors have served to power human progress in ways big and small ever since our anthropoid ancestors stood upright and began making tools. But it takes more than just some clever firing of the brain circuits to turn an invention idea into a working, tangible product. And then it takes even more work to develop it into a mass-market phenomenon that can change people's lives and make the inventor rich as Midas.

This article offers a brief look at the labor-intensive, potentially lucrative process of bringing an invention to market. The obstacles inventors must hurdle to come up with a good idea, legally protect it and entice people to buy it are tremendous.

But the monetary and psychological rewards, if you're successful, can make all the hassle seem in retrospect like a no-brainer. What's more, you needn't be a super genius: Click to the next page to learn the real deal about the invention process.

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Sinclair Chief Designer Alex Kalogroulis rides the new folding 'A-Bike' on the banks of the Thames in London, England.
Sinclair Chief Designer Alex Kalogroulis rides the new folding 'A-Bike' on the banks of the Thames in London, England.
Bruno Vincent/Getty Images

Thomas Alva Edison, best known for inventing the light bulb, famously said that "Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration."

Almost all great inventors have had this one thing in common: They're fanatical about capturing their ideas before they're forgotten. Whether sketching them down on paper, writing out descriptions or speaking into a voice recorder, the most prolific creators know the first step is to get that idea logged somewhere they can re-visit it. From there, they meticulously record the outcomes of experiments and take lots of notes on their work -- further stimulating new ideas.

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Copious note-taking also affords the inventor some legal protection in case of a dispute over who thought of an idea first [source: Massachusetts Institute of Technology].

A sense of urgency also helps. Often with inventions, especially new technologies, several people around the world will independently come up with the same idea simultaneously. So it's just a matter of who gets to their country's patent office first. Radio, for instance, can claim several "fathers," including Nikola Tesla, Guglielmo Marconi and others who simultaneously raced to develop radio as we know it today. But it was Marconi, who through speed and powerful business connections received the U.S. patent for inventing radio -- along with the Nobel Prize in 1911 [source: New Voyage Communications/PBS].

So should you file for a patent, trademark or copyright? Well, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office:

  • Patents are used to protect inventions and improvements to existing inventions.
  • Trademarks are words, names, symbols, devices and images used on products or used in conjunction with goods or services to identify their source.
  • Copyrights are used when protecting the expression of ideas in literary, artistic and musical works.

With your invention conceived, protected by the law from being poached and perhaps already built, how do you go about getting it out to the public? And getting a nice payday?

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Inventor James Dyson demonstrates his latest hoovering invention on March 14, 2005 in London. The vacuum cleaner replaces the traditional four wheels with one ball to guide it across the floor giving it increased maneuverability.
Inventor James Dyson demonstrates his latest hoovering invention on March 14, 2005 in London. The vacuum cleaner replaces the traditional four wheels with one ball to guide it across the floor giving it increased maneuverability.
Bruno Vincent/Getty Images

So there it is: Your invention, your baby, which has gone from idea to sketch to fully functioning prototype. All you need now is someone to manufacture it on a large scale and to sell it -- so that you can be rewarded for your genius.

OK, here's where the real work begins.

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At this point, you'll have to convince someone to invest in your invention further, in order to pay for manufacturing costs, marketing and distribution before it starts making a profit in the marketplace.

Alternatively, you can sell your idea outright and let the new owner worry about the above-mentioned heavy lifting. You can sell directly to a company in the industry that your product serves, or you can even sell to an independent firm that specifically buys inventions.

Also, don't forget that you can license your invention. In other words, you can give a company the right to use your invention's technology for a limited time. Licensing allows you to make money from your invention not just from one sale, but over and over from as many licensing deals as you can strike.

Just realize that if you manage to sell your invention that alone doesn't guarantee its success. But to increase its odds, make sure that whatever it is you invent fills an unmet need by a specific customer group. Successful inventions solve real-life problems that people have.

To get your invention to market, you'll definitely need lots of help -- from intellectual property attorneys to experts on marketing, perhaps even from technology experts to make your product better. A note of caution: Beware of scammers, who seem to be drawn to preying on idealistic inventors while claiming to help. Fortunately, there's no shortage of resources on navigating the twisty road to bringing an invention to market. In fact, here are a few you might find helpful to investigate:

For more information about inventions and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.

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Sources

  • Collins, Michael. "The Million-Dollar Idea in Everyone - Easy New Ways to Make Money from Your Interests, Insights, and Inventions." Hoboken, NJ. Jon Wiley and Sons. March 2008.
  • Dobkin, Jeffrey. "Uncommon Marketing Techniques." Merion Station, Pa. Danielle Adams Publishing.1998.
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Inventor's Handbook." Lemilson-MIT Program. (Jan. 3, 2011) http://web.mit.edu/invent/h-main.html
  • New Voyage Communications/PBS. "Tesla." 2000. (Jan. 4, 2011) http://www.pbs.org/te sla/ll/index.html
  • Tobin, James. "Great Projects - The Epic Story of the Building of America, from the Taming of the Mississippi to the Invention of the Internet." New York. The Free Press. 2001.

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