Is it a great time to be an inventor or a terrible one? From some corners of the inventing community, the news is doom and gloom, but for Stephen Key, a successful creator and entrepreneur, the opportunities faced by inventive people today are as varied and exciting as the challenges. Patents, he believes, are a tool to help people share their creativity. To commercialize some products they are absolutely necessary, but to bring others to market they may not be needed.
In an industry where inventors are regularly charged tens of thousands of dollars for help with inventions that will never make it to market, his unique perspective and commitment to giving back to the next generation of creators have earned him a large following.
Key is an award-winning inventor, entrepreneur, intellectual property strategist and author. He is also an educator and invention coach with students in more than 65 countries. In 1999, he co-founded inventRight, a company that teaches inventors how to design, patent and license their ideas for new products. He has been issued 20 patents, 15 trademarks, and numerous copyrights.
Bruce Berman, founder of The Center for Intellectual Property Understanding, interviewed Key for the fifth episode of Season 2 of his podcast “Understanding IP Matters.”
What does it take to be a successful inventor? Is there a personality type that you’ve seen? Do you see a pattern there?
“I think there is a pattern. Being curious, that’s a big part of it. Being very determined and loving it. What you realize about inventing, or being a creative person, is that it’s not so much of a job. It’s something you’re passionate about. You wake up every morning and you want do it — Saturday, Sunday, it doesn’t matter. You’re always thinking differently.
I see that that quality in people who create things. Inventors never retire, either. I think they just keep on doing it because it’s a lot of fun to see an idea that’s in your head come to life and be used by people and solve problems.
Individuals are hooked on it. They love it. They want to help. They’re curious. They’re determined. They recognize there are going to be a lot of obstacles and they’re not afraid of them. They ask a lot of good questions and they stay in it, because it is a tough industry. They have to have a lot of tenacity, you know. You have to be tough, have tough skin.”
What do you tell inventors — or, people who think they’re inventors — but don’t really have an invention that’s marketable. How do you convey that to them?
“I’m glad you asked that question. Most of the ideas that we see get licensed at inventRight aren’t inventions. And even if they are, they’re not called inventions. When you say ‘invention,’ you’re really talking about getting a patent issued. Right? I don’t think you need a patent issued to share your creativity and commercialize it.
I do believe that ‘inventiveness’ is really the key word here — coming up with something new that people want and overcoming obstacles.
Who do you think of when you say the word inventor? You think of Thomas Edison, right? Or something really big! I think that intimidates a lot of us. I would like to kind of change that a little bit to say, look, all of us can be inventive.”
Is there a future for inventors? Is it brighter than it was 20 years ago or 30 years ago?
“It’s never been a better time, ever. More and more companies have embraced open innovation. They want to work with you. You have great tools such as 3D printing, so you can build those prototypes fast. You have a wonderful tool, provisional patent applications, that you can file for under a hundred dollars and get patent pending status.
You don’t have to fly out to make a pitch. You can pitch on Zoom instead. You don’t even have to go to a trade show today. You can reach out to anyone on LinkedIn and get to any company, because there are no gatekeepers anymore. Which means that anyone can play this game of innovation.
Part of what we’re trying to do at inventRight is help tear down the barriers. I think those barriers are being taught. You have to file a patent and you have to start a business and you have to do a prototype. All those things are barriers.
What I like to say to everyone is, look, there’s something else you can learn about, which is product licensing. You don’t necessarily have to build a prototype at first; you can do a 3D computer generated model to see if there’s interest. You can file a provisional patent application. You can find a company that’s got the shelf space, so you don’t have to start a company yourself. What that does is allows everyone to participate.
So, yes, I think it’s never been such an amazing time to jump in if you’re creative.”
Listen to the entire episode to learn more about Key’s perspective on open innovation and licensing, including:
- How he got started as an entrepreneur;
- His most financially successful idea;
- Why it’s possible to license an idea without an issued patent today;
- Why companies that embrace open innovation aren’t in the habit of ripping off inventors;
- And how to make a patent application valuable from a business perspective.