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Why Do It?

For obvious reasons you need to prove - first to yourself, later to others - that your inventive step works. That usually means a series of increasingly polished prototypes. This may be where your first big costs kick in. A good prototype is rarely cheap but the closer you can get to a marketable product, the easier it will be to interest potential stakeholders.

For a large-scale or inherently expensive idea, you may need to seek funding for the prototype itself. In that case you need to concentrate on amassing convincing evidence that your idea has the potential to (a) work and (b) make huge amounts of profit to compensate for the much greater level of risk.

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The Point Of Prototypes

To stand any chance of persuading stakeholders that your idea is technically sound and marketable, you must be able to prove not only that it works but also that you have done all you reasonably can to perfect it. There are three main reasons for this:

  • Most prospective stakeholders want to see ideas with as few unresolved problems as possible, because that reduces their risk. You may see only a few loose ends that shouldn’t take much tying, but they’ll be more sceptical. Anyone with product development experience knows that even when the finishing line seems near, there can be major problems and costs lurking round that last bend.
  • Few people have the imagination to look at a rough early prototype and visualise a finished, quality product - or at least not without also visualising a perilous void between the two. There may even be a psychological refusal to visualise anything at all if they think you’re wasting their time.
  • The more work you put into your prototypes, the more you build up knowledge about key design and manufacturing aspects of your idea such as materials, weight, dimensions, tolerances, conformance to standards, trade- offs between what the product could be and what the market will bear, and the cost of everything. This knowledge will be essential when you pitch your idea to potential stakeholders.
The further away your prototype and associated knowledge is from a finished product, the harder it may be to convince anyone to back you. Many inventors don’t appreciate the often large difference between what it takes (and costs) to make a product once and what it takes (and costs) to manufacture it efficiently and profitably in high volume. Bridging that gap usually involves at least partial and often total redesign. The greater the (re)design requirement, the higher will be the cost to stakeholders and the less certain the outcome. This may cause companies and investors to turn you down even if they like the product and think it will sell. Therefore, before showing and demonstrating your idea you need to create something as close to a finished product as you can manage or afford.

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Testing And Assessment By Companies

With luck, a company will want to evaluate your prototype. This usually means letting them have it for a length of time that you must negotiate (Project 10). Before handing it over, and ideally before you even design or make it:

1. Find out how it’s likely to be tested by companies

Many products have to be tested for robustness in normal use and abuse. For example, small electronic devices may have to withstand being dropped on to a floor from desk or workbench height. It obviously helps if even a prototype can pass such tests. In general, don’t bank on getting your prototype back in pristine condition and make sure you design in enough sturdiness to keep it soldiering on. Products such as anti-theft devices may even have to be tested to destruction, in which case you need either a supply of samples or the test report of a reputable independent organisation (see Independent testing).

Don’t make your prototype an orphan. Make companies understand that you care about it by setting a strict time limit on the evaluation period and including a requirement for feedback. If you have relevant expertise, volunteer to be an adviser during evaluation.

If you can, ask to meet the people who will be doing the testing. Advantages are:

  • You can deal with any misunderstandings about what your prototype can and can’t be expected to do. (Feedback from inventors suggests that this is a significant problem: too many tests condemn the inventive step because of deficiencies in the prototype, which may unavoidably be less than perfect.)
  • You get some impression of how competent and willing they are to do a good job. This may influence how long you’re prepared to leave your prototype with them.
  • They can now put a face and personality to the prototype. If they form a good impression of you, they may be more sympathetic in their approach to your idea. They may also be more prepared to enter into a constructive dialogue with you during testing.

Offer to consider any modifications they may think necessary and respond rapidly if they take you up on it. If you don’t show serious interest your prototype may quickly be forgotten or lost within a busy company. For example, one inventor we know left his only prototype of a scaffold clamp with a large construction firm. They tested it until it broke, tossed the bits in the scrap bin and didn’t bother telling him until months later, when he decided to try other companies and wanted his prototype back.

Some companies test prototypes using their existing products as a benchmark. If this is going to be the case you need to know, as it’s too easy for company people who don’t like your idea - and there will be some - to skew the tests so that your prototype can’t win. For example, if it performs far better than the company product but isn’t quite as fast, they’ll make speed a key measure of performance. All we can safely say is that we know this kind of thing happens. If you think the proposed test criteria are unreasonable, object before the test as it’ll sound like sour grapes afterwards.

2. Find out what standards your product might have to meet

Before they can lawfully be sold, many products have to meet statutory safety or performance standards. These may differ from country to country, though many standards (for example the ISO series) are international. Other standards agreed within specific industries may not have legal force but will drastically reduce the sales prospects of nonconforming products. It’s your responsibility to find out which standards apply to your product, and what testing and approvals procedures it will have to go through. Your local trading standards department (www.tradingstandards.gov.uk) or the British Standards Institution (www.bsi-global.com) should be able to advise you, and the documentation that comes with products similar to yours will often list the standards they meet.

Your prototype may have to demonstrate at least the potential to meet relevant standards if it’s to interest stakeholders. Be warned too that compliance testing is often an expensive and slow process. If you don’t find out what’s involved and plan for it, you could find yourself badly over budget and late to market.

Independent testing

If testing is likely to be rigorous and you don’t have lots of replacement prototypes, consider having your prototype or product independently tested. In fact, consider having it independently tested anyway. The favourable report of a respected and impartial test organisation can significantly improve your prospects when trying to win over sceptical or lukewarm potential stakeholders. It might, for example, persuade them to fund you to produce more prototypes for further evaluation.

Many university departments offer independent test facilities at commercial rates and can often carry out tests equivalent to statutory or industry standards. Some are highly specialised. For example, if you want to test an item of outdoor clothing or equipment you couldn’t do much better in the UK than Leeds University’s Performance Clothing Research Group. To find a test centre with the right clout, ask around within the relevant industry or market sector.

A word (OK, paragraph) of warning though: when you get your report, study it carefully because we’ve yet to see a report that says exactly what the inventor claims it says. It’s not the job of a test body to give praise or approval. It’s their job simply to say ‘We did this, and this is what happened’, but test results can be such a mixed bag, and tend to be written up in such technical language, that for the non- expert reader there may be no clear message. So some inventors make up their own, focussing on what sound like the best bits and ignoring the rest. They go around claiming that their idea is a proven success when the data as a whole tell a different story. This risks rubbing potential stakeholders up the wrong way. As soon as they twig, they may justifiably use the report as an excuse to reject your idea outright rather than see it for what it may actually be - an early and helpful identification of weaknesses that can be fixed.

If you genuinely don’t understand the report you've paid for, ask for clarification. Most test reports are written by people whose strength is science rather than English, so you needn’t feel any embarrassment in saying ‘Please explain what you mean here’.

Help with design or redesign

If you don’t have product design skills or at least technical drawing skills to enable your invention to be properly understood by someone competent to make it, you may not be able to produce a presentable prototype unaided. You need a designer or at least a draughtsman.

Design is a key factor in the success of commercial products, and it can be a key factor in the success of pre-market inventions too. You need to think about design from day one, as even an extremely well-built functional prototype may not impress stakeholders if its underlying design is impractical, dated or just plain ugly. Good design is persuasive. The true value of your invention may be missed if it’s buried inside a poor design.

Good design skills aren’t cheap but an experienced designer can be invaluable in dealings with manufacturers or component suppliers, either at prototype or full production stage. Manufacturers need detailed and precise specifications before they can make anything, and if queries or problems arise they need access to someone who talks their language.

If you’re not up to those demands, you have these broad options:

  • If you can afford their fees, use professional product designers - but first discuss the sometimes prickly problem of how big a share of any resulting IP they might be entitled to. In general terms, if they do exactly what you ask them to do and you pay them in full, that should be the end of it. But if you can only give them a vague idea of what you want, or if they contribute ideas of their own which improve your invention significantly, they may be legally entitled to a share - perhaps a large share - of the IP. So that you both know where you stand, get a written agreement drawn up and vetted by a patent attorney or solicitor before work starts.
  • You may be able to bring a designer on board as a stakeholding partner and team member, for a share of future income rather than fees. But you must accept that this may well justify a large and perhaps even majority share of the IP and profits therefrom. Again, get a written agreement in place before work starts.
  • You may be able to get design assistance from a university. There are often government or EU schemes to make the expertise of academic staff available to small businesses and occasionally individuals; or it may be possible, as with market research (Project 2), to turn your design requirement into a student project at even lower cost but with a less certain outcome. However, we’ve had mixed reports from inventors about their experience of universities, so shop around until you find not just the right expertise at the right price but also the right attitude. Ask about IP ownership (we’ve heard of universities demanding all of it) and be especially cautious if you’re offered help to get funding. This can often mean funding to meet the university’s costs only, with little or none of it coming to you, so find out how the money will break down before lending your name to a funding bid.

Getting quotations from manufacturers

Always shop around for quotations from manufacturers, as costs can vary widely. Small companies may be better for prototypes and trial batches, as they may be more flexible, have fewer overheads and be more in need of the work. Large companies with advanced equipment tend to be cheaper only at very high volume but for that reason get quotes from them too, if you can. Knowing how cheaply your product could be manufactured may help sway potential stakeholders later. In all cases ask how quickly the job can be delivered and hold them to it in any contract, as it’s not unknown for companies to accept a small job and then just sit on it until they’ve nothing better to do.

Ask for quotes based on the detailed drawings that you or your designer have produced but make sure those drawings represent exactly what you want. A late request from you for even a minor modification may have knock-on effects right through the design that can add enormously to the final bill. Prototypes and new products are by definition not run of the mill, so don’t leave your manufacturer guessing about even the tiniest detail.

Thinking beyond prototype stage, it doesn’t harm to talk generally to manufacturers about production costs and how to reduce them. If they’re interested in what you’re doing, you could learn a lot from them. Ask about the effect on costs if production were to be scaled up. A good way to do this is to get quotes for progressively larger quantities - for example 1000-off, 5000-off, 10,000-off and the run-on cost per thousand thereafter. The more you learn about manufacturing costs, the easier it is to start attaching figures to the all-important relationship of sales volume, price and profit. This will be essential information if you get to the business planning stage and beyond (Project 8, Project 9 and Project 10).

PROOF OF CONCEPT

What if a prototype isn’t possible without first raising considerable funding? This can be a real problem for ideas that will be inherently expensive to prototype.

At private inventor level, where prototyping costs can become prohibitive very quickly, you might want simply to convince a potential stakeholder that an idea you can’t afford to do anything with is worth exploring further.
In the absence of a prototype you have to focus on proof of concept - making a convincing case that your idea is:

  • Technically feasible.
  • Commercially viable.
  • Potentially profitable enough to justify a large leap of faith by stakeholders.
When you’re asking people to back something you can’t show them, all their defences will be up. A style attack won’t work, so forget flashy computer imagery and marketing hyperbole. What you need is substance: a clear, sober, step-by-step argument for your idea primarily on paper, backed by detailed and credible information to justify every advantage you claim for it. Aim to make it impossible for anyone to say ‘You haven’t told us this’ or ‘Where’s your evidence for that?’

Four things may make a big difference:

  • Market evaluation. Essentially, your Project 2 work. An idea that as yet barely exists in any form, and may therefore be ultra-risky, had better have rock solid commercial prospects or no one will want to touch it.
  • Mathematical proof that the technical basis of your idea is sound. This is especially important for ideas involving energy conversion. Mathematics is cheap and usually difficult to refute. As assessors we often come across ideas where it takes only a few minutes of relatively simple maths to show that something can or (more usually) can’t possibly work as claimed. The sadness is that so many inventors - including technology graduates who should know much better - seem unable even to think of doing this for themselves.
  • Test results. Have you carried out even basic tests or experiments to prove any part of your idea? If so, give full details. How, where, when and by whom were the tests conducted? What were the data and findings? Can you name independent witnesses or supporters willing to supply statements or answer questions?
  • Expert opinion. Run your idea in confidence past a recognised expert (universities are full of them if you can’t find one anywhere else) and get his or her opinion in writing. It may amount to only a few paragraphs but could be invaluable in helping persuade others to take you seriously. Experts can legitimately disagree with one another so if possible get a spread of opinions. Rather than pick only the most favourable, it could actually strengthen your case to present all of them and explain how you can plausibly overcome any objections. If on the other hand they all rubbish your idea, you have a problem. It may not be insuperable but it’ll be a big one.

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Project 4 Checklist

The following checklist is partly an action planner and partly a reminder of what matters. If you’re tempted to think ‘I don’t need to do all this stuff’, it may help to point out that we’ve modeled the checklist on questions professionals are very likely to ask if you want their advice, support or money. We therefore have to be stern and say that if you aim to be a respected and successful inventor, you can’t afford to duck any of it.

 
If relevant - and especially if experts are likely to be sceptical - provide practical or analytical proof that your inventive step can work.
 
Detail your strategy for proving and presenting your invention.
 
Indicate who else (a designer, university etc) needs to be involved.
 
What are the implications of this for ownership of IP?
 
How much will it all cost and how will you fund it?
 
Indicate how you’ll eliminate unnecessary cost.
 
How are companies likely to test your prototype?
 
Specify any standards that apply to your type of product and indicate how you’ll ensure conformance.
 
Detail what you’ve done to have your prototype independently tested or assessed.
 
Provide evidence of the likely manufacturing cost of your product.

Next Project…..
PROJECT 5
Project 5

Protect your idea - and yourself

If you don’t legally protect your intellectual property (IP) you can’t safely disclose it, profit from it or defend it.


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