Steve Kohls has shuttled between Cincinnati and his new home in upstate New York behind many a tractor trailer. In those long, tedious hours, the boxy behinds of the semis started to get to him. An electrical engineer by day, he started cooking up ideas on how to make the backs of trailers more aerodynamic.
Several years and endless hours of designing and research later, an add-on to the trailer that smoothes out its jagged angles is on the brink of being approved for a U.S. patent. His story is one of many that shows how the spirit of the garage inventor is still alive and well in Cincinnati and around the country, adapted and helped by some modern twists.
But great inventions won't go far without securing the inventor's intellectual property rights. Making sure that one's idea doesn't trample on someone else's patent is critical, as is the next step of making sure no one else snatches the inventor's idea.
One-man inventors and small businesses have a lot of obstacles between their eureka moments and getting their products to market. For those just starting out and anyone on a tight budget, the path begins with their own research, using relatively new resources on the internet. Tools found onand (not to be mistaken for , which links to for-profit sites) have streamlined the still-tedious process of searching for similar inventions, but they have also made it far more feasible for inventors to begin that work themselves and save potentially thousands of dollars in initial legal costs.
"What I started with was very easy with the internet. I spent probably 10 hours over the course of a couple of months, to make sure that what I was thinking of making wasn't already patented," Kohls says. His research averted a mountain of wasted time when he found a patent similar to his first idea — an inflatable attachment that worked to reduce drag.
Kohls went back to the drawing board and settled on a new design using components that lock into a pyramid that improves fuel efficiency and collapses flush with the trailer's back doors for loading and unloading. Easy assembly and breakdown of the device is what he expects will set his product apart from competitors.
Having done everything he could without legal help, Kohls hired Drew Blatt, a Wood, Herron & Evans patent attorney, to get his invention patented and secure from copycats.
Blatt and other experienced patent attorneys guide clients through the complex process of filing a patent application and, often, tussling with patent inspectors to get it approved. They help lay out the rules and help clients avoid breaking them. One common mistake is publicly announcing the invention on Facebook or a personal web page too soon. Once that's done, an inventor has one year to file a patent application or risk losing foreign rights to his product in almost every country.
"It's one thing to have a great invention, but there has to be some sort of plan beyond just the patent protection to get that to market, publicize it , and manufacture it," Blatt says.
David Lafkas, a patent attorney, also advises clients to be fastidious with documentation. "I'm a big believer in documenting everything they're doing and inventing. Keep a notebook to cover yourself from a legal standpoint," he says.
Lafkas is happy to get new patent work but won't automatically plunge into a patent application. "One of the biggest pitfalls I see is focusing too heavily on the intellectual property to begin with. You can blow a lot of money to get a patent filed, and have no money left for marketing," he says. Having a game plan from the beginning helps. "I need them to be around for a few years to keep giving me business," he says with a laugh.
Mike Hoeting (pictured), co-owner of Bang Zoom Design, a toy designer in Cincinnati's Eden Park neighborhood, found his calling while studying at University of Cincinnati's college of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning (DAAP). "The reason I got into the toy inventing side of design is that I knew there was a lot of demand for mechanical design and utility design, which would require patents. There's a lot of upside to what you can earn using a utility patent versus designed patent," he says.
Bang Zoom has sold its toys to Mattel and many of its divisions, as well as Hasbro, Radio Shack, Kid Galaxy, Jakks and Spinmaster. One big success was a remote-controlled motorcycle and rider, now sold by Mattel, that improved on previous products with better stability.
Hoeting advises new entrepreneurs to do lots of homework and to be persistent but also not to hold onto just one idea for too long if it's not distinct or marketable enough to succeed. "There were products that I wish I had gotten patents on and ones that I wish I hadn't," he says.
Newcomers seeking patents or moving onto marketing have another powerful and cheap tool in their arsenal in social networking. Geof Oberhaus, a patent attorney with Dinsmore & Shohl, points to That's an immense resource. I know that there are licensing groups and inventors groups, lots of free resources that you can utilize for your business," he says.as an invaluable tool for networking and gathering good, free advice. "
Entrepreneurs don't have to wait for IP protection to begin seeking information on LinkedIn or elsewhere, he says, as long as they don't give away specific details of their intellectual property and start the clock running toward losing their rights. "It's never good to tell anyone what you want to do until you've filed. But you can ask general questions like, I have an invention in the home improvement area, who should I ask about paint products," Oberhaus says.
Sites such as Facebook can help build buzz around an inventor's business, as can blogs, he says.
"The other key thing is you have to know early on is your game plan. A patent doesn't give you the right to sell something. It gives you the right to exclude others from selling it," he says.
Oberhaus said the plan should include a strategy for scaling up production and also considering the consequences of scaling down. Holding onto production of an invention has its advantages, but selling licensing rights or the patent outright to a major manufacturer eliminates the risk of a catastrophic turn of events. He recalls one client who sold a product to a major hardware chain and spent a fortune in equipment to do so. But after a short time, quality control problems prompted the hardware store to stop reordering the product, leaving the inventor with a lot of expensive and idle equipment.
Kohls offers this advice: "Ideas are a dime a dozen, but the follow through on those ideas is what makes the difference between success and failure."