2013-06-28 / Columnists


By Rick Horan

Ideas and reality don’t always jive. What sounds good or even looks good on paper can be quite different when actually put into practice. Even things that seem to work well in a lab can fall flat on their face when tested in the real world.

Having ideas is fun, and the critical first step in the creative process, but trying to turn those concepts into something more tangible, is well, a whole ‘nuther thing.

Wait a minute. Are “Ideas” the same as “concepts?” Although most of us use them interchangeably and some dictionaries describe one using the other, they are not really synonymous. The distinction is that an idea is a simple, broad vision, “a beer would hit the spot right now,” while the more developed concept might be, “let’s get a 16 ounce Guinness in a chilled glass with a burger at the RBI.” In essence, a concept is a combination of ideas.

As long as we’re defining things, what’s a patent? The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO.gov) uses the following criteria before awarding patent protection: the invention must be novel, non-obvious and useful. The disclosure also needs to be “enabling,” meaning that someone “skilled in the art” should be able to use your instructions to make your product. This is often referred to as “reduction to practice.” Bottom line, you need to provide a fair amount of detail to get a patent. An idea by itself won’t cut it while a well-developed concept might.

Where was I? Oh yeah, the process of turning ideas into reality. It ain’t easy, cheap or fast, but it is fun and usually rewarding.

Where do you start? The first step when you have an idea is to decide if you want to develop it or simply share it. Here is the filter I use: do I have a clear concept of how it should work? Is it unique? Do I have the necessary resources and commitment to see it through?

If no, then share the idea for the entertainment value. But if yes, then you might be about to take the plunge into the black hole called product development.

Your first step is to design it with a sophisticated computer modeling program or a pencil and the back of a napkin. Either way, you need to be able to define how this thing of yours will work.

Once you’ve got it sketched out you will now want to build a “proof-of-concept” that is the physical embodiment of your idea, or at least a crude version of it to prove that it actually works. These socalled “breadbox” models are often made out of cardboard or wood or some other readily available, off-the-shelf component. The key words here are cheap and quick so you can cut your losses if it doesn’t work out.

Whether this first step results in success or failure, you will learn a lot. At this point most people will abandon their idea as unworkable or impractical, but if you see hope and are foolish enough to press on, then you will want to improve your prototype and build another one. This trial and error process can go on for years and cost a lot of money, but that’s the nature of the beast. An inventor’s life is littered with the skeletons of broken prototypes that didn’t quite live up to expectations, as I can personally attest.

An even harder question than “how do you start” is “when do you quit?” We’ll take a look at that question next week.

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