Your journey as an entrepreneur begins with an idea to create something new and a burning desire to see that idea turned into a successful business venture. But hold your horses! Before you get carried away with dreams of future riches, you have some hard questions to ask and some work to do.
- First, you have to determine whether your invention has unique business value.
- Then you have to determine whether it qualifies for protection under patent and trademark law.
- Finally, is it just an invention — a new idea, device, product, or process — or is it a true innovation? Innovations are much more likely to gain the interest of investors because they hold the promise of creating sustainable competitive advantage and value.
Does It Have Unique Business Value?
Before you do anything else, find out whether someone else has already come up with your invention. Public users can conduct at least a preliminary search of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s (USPTO) full-text database of patents issued since 1976 (it also contains all patent applications). Or, visit a Patent and Trademark Depository Library to review patents on microfilm or optical disc. You can also retain a patent attorney or agent to conduct a complete search. (See resources listed below).
Is It an Invention or an Innovation?
An invention is any object, process or technique that displays an element of novelty that can be described in writing. You can file a patent for an invention. But companies don’t spend billions of dollars every year on R&D because they’re looking for the next great invention; they want innovation.
Innovation creates business value. Innovation is driven by market needs. An innovation exploits inventiveness to solve a real world problem. It often creates entirely new growth opportunities within existing industries. Innovations are far more likely to gain the interest of investors because they hold the promise of creating sustainable competitive advantage.
According to RPI’s own Gina O’Connor, Associate Dean for the Lally School of Management, “Innovation is emerging as an organizational function just like marketing has become established as a function in companies today.” 
Can you Protect It?One of the first questions any potential business partner or investor is going to ask you is whether you have Intellectual Property. In other words, have you obtained patent or trademark protection for your idea?
Not every invention qualifies for legal protection. According to the U.S. Patents & Trademarks Office (USPTO), to receive a utility patent an invention must first and foremost be a “new, non-obvious, and useful:”
- Article of manufacture
- Composition of matter, or
- An improvement on one of the above
It must also be adequately described and must be claimed by the inventor in clear and definite terms through the filing of an application for patent protection. You cannot patent:
- Laws of nature
- Physical phenomena
- Abstract ideas
- Literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works (these can be copyright-protected)
- Inventions which are:
- Not useful (such as perpetual motion machines); or
- Offensive to public morality
A sweeping reform of U.S. patent law was passed in September 2011. In March 2013, an important provision of that law went into effect. For patent applications with an effective filing date of March 16, 2013 or later, the system now emphasizes the date of filing for patent protection rather than the date of invention. The reality is more complex, however, so it is essential to educate yourself and to use a good patent attorney to help you through the process.
If you are a client of the Rensselaer Emerging Ventures Ecosystem (EVE) business incubation program, you may possess rights to commercialize and profit from technological inventions and advancements resulting from Institute research and development. Alternatively, you may have your own unique Intellectual Property that you wish to develop into a commercially viable product or service. A list of RPI’s comprehensive commercialization resources is offered in the Resource sections below.
 Gina O’Connor, Grabbing Lightning, John Wiley & Sons, 2008
RESOURCES FROM RPI
- Your EVE Podio Account: click on Innovation and add the “Innovation Checklist”
- The Office of Research
- Center for Automation Technologies and Systems (CATS)
- Center for Architecture, Science and Ecology (CASE)
- New York State Center for Future Energy Systems (CFES)
- Lighting Research Center (LRC)
- RPI Entrepreneurship and IP
- The Office of Technology Commercialization
- U.S. Patents & Trademarks Office
- USPTO list of registered Attorneys
- Lawyers.com Listing of Capital Region IP Law Firms
- CEG Growth & Innovation Services