Is it possible to grow a community of inventors that, in turn, nurture an entrepreneurial environment?
“I think so; I always encourage people to take advantage of the ideas they have,” said Tom Carter, who holds patents on a number of products, from trade show display materials to his newest invention, CoopWorx, a feeder for backyard chickens.
Gloria Monroe agrees that patent activity indicates innovation, fresh new ideas and creativity, which fuels entrepreneurship.
“Once a new product design or idea is patented, the next step is commercialization of that product,” said Monroe, the interim director of the Small Business and Technology Development Center (SBTDC) at UNCW. “The commercialization often spawns new small business creation.”
Increasing numbers of Wilmington-area residents are seeking help to develop and protect their product ideas.
“There does seem to be an increase in patents, but inventors have the option of keeping their inventions as trade secrets, which are not limited by a governed amount of time before the patent expires,” Monroe added. “So, at the SBTDC we see an increase in the number of business starts, whether or not the product or service is patented, trademarked, copyrighted or a trade secret.”
Ashley Johnson, an attorney who specializes in patents, copyrights and trademarks, has seen a rise in activity locally as entrepreneurs create new products or develop their own brand of an existing concept.
“I’ve seen new brands of surf clothing, for example. One client I’ve been working with is Solbello, a beach umbrella. It’s really taken off, and now they have international patent protection,” she said.
“I’ve been in practice for 20 years and opened our Wilmington office in early 2019,” Johnson continued. “When I started in Wilmington, 95% of my business was coming from our office in Raleigh, but in the past one to two years I’ve seen an increase in people reaching out here for patents and trademarks; new businesses starting and wanting to protect their brand.”
The SBTDC can sometimes connect a promising innovation with financial support.
“The SBTDC’s Technology Development and Commercialization program also assists innovation-based small businesses with incorporating federal R&D into their funding strategies, including Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) awards,” Monroe said. “The SBIR/STTR (Small Business Technology Transfer) programs provided over $158 million in awards to eligible North Carolina businesses in 2022.”
The patenting process has become easier recently, thanks to a change in the law, noted Carter (shown left).
“Now it’s first-to-file rather than first-to-invent,” he explained. “That gives you a year to see if you’ve got a market. It used to be that you would file your patent application before you even got started, but now you file for a provisional patent, which can (involve) very simple drawings.”
The new process has stimulated invention activity, Johnson said.
“You get a great idea and file for a provisional: The filing fee is pretty cheap,” the attorney said. “File that provisional patent application and draw a line in the sand as of the date it was filed. The provisional gives you a one-year period to decide if you want to move forward and develop your prototype.”
Consult a patent attorney sooner rather than later, she continued.
“Even if you are early in the process, you want to get that pathway in your mind; protect your concept while you’re still figuring it out. You don’t want your invention to be scooped,” she said. “Sometimes a lot of revisions happen between filing a provisional application and filing the final version. You want to make sure those revisions are protected.”
The one-year period allows the inventor to develop a prototype and test it, estimate materials and production costs, research the market and search existing patents to see if a too-similar product already exists.
If the product’s prospects look disappointing, the inventor can let the provisional patent lapse.
In the case of Carter’s CoopWorx, the process between filing for his provisional patent and being ready to ship the finished products took less than a year. Admittedly, he’s a seasoned inventor, and he works with an experienced design engineer.
“Don’t try to design everything yourself,” he advises others. “Get a good industrial designer involved; it makes a huge difference. A good industrial designer will add stuff you never thought of, will make sure things are moldable and can save you a lot of money so you can produce the product affordably.”
Carter manufactures the chicken feeders, his trade show products and other items at his facility in Wilmington. Does that mean a beehive of invention activity in a region translate to a buzz of manufacturing nearby?
“There are many business models that can be used to bring a product or service to market,” Monroe said. “One of those models is to outsource manufacturing so the inventor can focus on the next
new invention. Outsourced manufacturing can be localized or global depending on cost, quality and supply.”
That being said, Monroe added, there is a definite correlation between the patents processed and new business creation, with some resulting local manufacturing.
“The economic indicators for new business growth are usually the number of full-time employees and the revenue and capital formation required to first launch the business and then grow the business,” she continued. “The business model that works for a specific invention depends on the new product cost to develop, business growth goals and market potential for the new product.”