Take Your Invention from Cool Concept to Cha-Ching

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Ethan Nicholas worked long days as an engineer at an electronics company, but his nights were spent crafting an iPhone application that would eventually change his life (the app, a game called iShoot,  lets users maneuver tanks and shoot artillery). He learned to code by trial and error since he couldn’t even afford to buy an instruction manual. However, once he submitted the game to Apple (Stock Quote: AAPL), the app began selling rapidly, earning Nicholas more than $600,000 in a single month. He quit his job soon after.

Do I really need another point-and-shoot game, especially for my phone? Probably not, but sign me up anyway.

Inventions, whether simple or profound, can make you famous and rich, but before anyone will pay you for your idea, you have to take steps toward making it a reality.

The good news: It’s become easier than ever to turn yourself into a part-time Thomas Edison, thanks to the Internet.

Here are some steps to get you started on the road to invention:

1. Make Sure Your Invention is New
Before you even begin, visit the Intellectual Property Digital Library. In fact, bookmark the page. This Web site lets you search through thousands of inventions so that you don’t tramp down to the patent office clinging to an idea that’s already been done. (Reading other peoples’ pitches also may help to fine tune your own.)

2. Protect Your Idea with a Patent
Once you’ve settled on your idea, the best move is to patent it before anyone else can claim your epiphany as their own. You will either file a utility or design patent, depending on whether your invention is a functional or aesthetic innovation. You can learn more on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Web site

The costs vary depending on what kind of patent you need. Basic filing fees usually run in the $200-300 range, however, there are additional costs if you want to hold onto the patent for several years. Just think of a good idea as an investment.

3. Find Some Start-Up Capital
Now comes the tricky-er part. Getting it made.

Sometimes, inventors won’t need an infusion of cash and resources to make an idea into reality. Other times they will and it is the inventor’s responsibility to entice wealthy entrepreneurs by mailing letters and cold calling. Just imagine all the drama that exists on the reality show, Shark Tank, except it’s all in your head. In real life, you would be lucky to even get an audience with investors.

If you are intent to follow this route, one of the best places to look are venture capital Web sites like Angel-Investors.com. The company’s sole mission is to help finance clever individuals who have good ideas but limited funds.  You can also try getting small grants from new organizations like the Awesome Foundation. Each month, this small group of Boston investors will give $1,000 to a good idea. It doesn’t matter what the idea is, as long as it’s awesome.

4. Consider Letting Others In
It is now possible to get around step three by joining an online community of inventors like Quirky.com. This site boasts of having more than 10,000 users, who pitch ideas and offer feedback on other users’ project designs. Each invention is voted on by the community and, if picked, is offered in the Quirky Store. Finally, if the item gets enough pre-orders, the Web site helps the project get fast tracked through production.

Quirky is free to join, but you do have to pay a $99 fee to enter proposals. If this sounds steep, just consider some of the success stories. Brian Kerr pitched a simple idea for an alarm clock shaped like a light bulb, which he dubbed Watt Time. All it does is tell time and function as a reading light, but the community loved it. Now, it’s selling for $24.99 on the Web site, and Kerr makes nearly $3 for everyone sold.

Marc Julian Zech, another user on the site, won the community’s support for the Split Stick, a double-sided USB plug that devotes one side to business files and the other to personal data. Zech has already sold hundreds of these through the site, earning $2.87 for each.

Best of all, Quirky offers consolation prizes. Even if you’re idea isn’t picked by the community, you can still get a piece of the pie based on how much your feedback affects the invention’s final design.

Quirky isn’t the only site to throw a bone to struggling inventors. Web sites like InventorSpot.com allow users to advertise their inventions, provides advice and even features call-outs from big companies. Today, they announced that Bed Bath and Beyond (Stock Quote: BBBY) is looking for innovative pet products for grooming and travel needs. It may not be the printing press, but every inventor has to start somewhere.


5. Join a Club
Despite the wealth of options online, sometimes the best thing is to meet experts face-to-face and bounce ideas off of them. The United Inventors Association offers a directory of inventors clubs by location and a 24-hour hotline to call and ask for information. After all, you never know when you’ll have a great idea.

6. Avoid Scams
Unfortunately, there are many ways inventors can get scammed these days. It’s best to be cautious. Check the Federal Trade Commission Web site to see if the company you’re dealing with has been flagged.

If you’re looking to hire a patent attorney, be sure to ask for references and search for their history here. Once you’ve found a legitimate attorney, ask them to recommend other licensing and promotions experts. Joining an inventor’s group will also help put you in touch with a network of certified experts.

—For a comprehensive credit report, visit the BankingMyWay.com Credit Center.

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