I enjoy reading and talking about the stories behind the inventions that have come out of Oklahoma over the years.
One that’s at the top of my mind this summer, given the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon walk, is the tale of the intrepid Wiley Post who, with assistance from R.S. Colley and B.F. Goodrich Company, came up with the first practical pressure suit to make high-altitude flight possible.
Post, who it is said decided to become a pilot when he saw an airplane in flight at the 1913 Lawton County Fair, bought his first plane with the settlement money he received for losing an eye in an oil field accident.
As a private pilot, Post flew around the world twice, the second time setting a record for solo flight. Observing that the higher he flew, the faster he went, led to the invention of the pressure suit and his discovery of the jet stream. Post’s pressure suit, made of rubber on Colley’s wife’s sewing machine, was a first step in flight suits that eventually led to Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon.
From everything I read, Wiley Post wasn’t focused on patenting his design; his focus was how to fly his airplane fast and high. Today’s entrepreneurs tend to want to be more protective with their ideas. That brings me to number five in my series of entrepreneurship lessons learned: A patent doesn’t always equal early success.
With ease and abundance of information today, innovators who are building companies around new technologies are not wrong to be cautious about the risk to unprotected intellectual property. On the surface, a patent looks to be a great lock and key.
While that may be true for a large corporation with a half-dozen patent attorneys and experience with patents that stretches over decades, for a startup, the legal costs and the time that a thorough patent process requires can often outweigh the perceived benefits.
Even riskier is the exposure of publishing the exact details of the product, process, or material that is being patented. Everything from how the technology works, to the specific problems it solves, to how it differs from other products in the marketplace becomes public, giving competitors information that they can use in their own product strategies.
Moreover, a patent is only as effective as the claims patented. A scope that is too narrow or too broad opens the door to competition, and even if the patent provides effective protection, that doesn’t mean the competition won’t ignore it and move ahead with their plans anyway.
A patent holder is responsible for enforcing his or her own patents. Litigating a patent violation (which can cost thousands of dollars over multiple years) takes resources and expertise that most startups don’t have.
When it comes to patents, fast-moving entrepreneurs should pause, and then move quickly to ask advice from experts they trust to develop an effective strategy to protect their intellectual property.
Scott Meacham is president and CEO of i2E Inc., a nonprofit corporation that mentors many of the state’s technology-based startup companies. i2E receives appropriations from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology. Contact Meacham at i2E_Comments@i2E.org.
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