Big shark in the oceanarium

On Tuesday evening, I went to a “shark tank” event at TechNexus in Chicago. Thanks to my friend and colleague Nancy Fallon-Houle, the startup business lawyer, for inviting me. Here’s what I’ve learned about inventions and Shark Tank. If you’d like to know more about how to profit from your inventions, this article is for you.

Before I go further in reporting on Tuesday’s event, let me hasten to say that neither the host Caerus Investments nor the startup business incubator TechNexus used the ABC-TV trademark “Shark Tank.” Instead, they used the mark “NotaPitch” (with hashtag) (“the sequel”).

I. Social apps are cool

At the shark event, there were about seven pitches, each followed by one minute of comments from each of five venture capitalists. Done in 60 minutes. The crowd—there was not a seat to be found in the 120-person room—was young, energetic, diverse, bright, and engaged.

The pitches were good. But they missed the mark.

These seven, like most startups, are trying to dream up “ideas” in a vacuum. Most of the ideas are for apps, usually social apps. Everybody wants to be the next LinkedIn. The odds are strongly against them. That train has left the station and it has a big head start.

One of the seven presenters was an engineer. He has an idea—probably pretty well developed, because that’s the way engineers work—for indoor use of drones. At least that idea could lead to a physical-and-software embodiment. But next to social apps, drones are probably among the obvious fields for would-be inventors. Good luck! Again, others have a head start.

II. Beware of Shark Tank and Kickstarter

By the way—and this is an important point—when you have an invention, don’t show it in public until you’ve filed a patent application. See my article, When to Patent. Shark Tank and Kickstarter are not your friends.

Returning to my report on the shark event, none of the seven presenters was trying to solve a real world problem; none was trying to fill an actual need. Which means that they’re almost certainly on the wrong track—one that will lead nowhere.

III. Real inventions solve real world problem

At the shark event, there was one kernel of wisdom displayed in a slide show: A software coder once said that if you want to succeed, find a backward industry and write a program that will help bring the industry into the modern age.

I’ve worked with many companies in many industries in my decades of experience as an engineer and patent lawyer. One of the things that continually surprises me is that many people are working on products that I’ve never taken time to think about.

Real inventions are not on Shark Tank.

IV. Plastic ketchup bottles—not cool but profitable

Some of the most useful and profitable inventions are in technologies like disposable plastic ketchup bottles, vehicle restraints, or sintered powder metals, to name three disparate fields.

Most people have no idea how difficult it is to make a Heinz plastic ketchup bottle, for example. The bottles are engineering marvels. If people knew how hard they are to make, they’d keep them and display them on their fireplace mantels as works of art. As stated in the closing scene of the classic movie The Graduate (1967), there is a great future in plastics.

Yes, there are people who devote their lives and careers to such technologies. They invent things. Useful things. They solve real world problems and fill actual needs. They’re the ones who should apply for patents. Sometimes they do file for patents, but paradoxically, highly skilled people often fail to recognize the novelty of their own inventions. They miss out on the opportunity for the exclusive, profitable rights afforded by the patent laws. They and their bosses think they’re Not Smart Enough.

V. Low-tech inventor of the year

A few years ago I nominated a successful product designer for the “Inventor of the Year” Award conferred by the Intellectual Property Law Association of Chicago. My nominee won the award.

While we were waiting for the award ceremony, the inventor, who designed a dozen patented products that each sold $10 billion or more, confessed to me that his inventions were “low tech.”

The award winner related a story of how he was once on a flight seated next to a man who asked, “What business are you in?”

My inventor friend replied that he designs nuts and bolts, and he returned the question, “What business are you in?”

The seatmate sniffed, “I’m in technology,” and he turned away, ending the conversation.

My friend told me (but refrained from telling his arrogant seatmate) that he cries all the way to the bank with his “low tech” inventions.

VI. Find fertile ground for inventions

If you have the urge to found a start-up, try starting this way. Go find a real problem to solve for a customer. Or find a latent need, like Steve Jobs did, and create a product like the iPhone that people didn’t even know they wanted.

(For more on the Who, What, Why and When of inventions, see my series on the 4 W’s of Patent.)

If you’re an engineer, or a coder, or a wannabe designer, try working for a real company—one that makes something, whether it’s a physical product or software or both. You’ll be assigned to a boring project to solve an intractable problem. Figure it out, and you’ll light up a small corner of the world.

Solve a problem and light up a corner of the world

When you’re that person—or if you’re that person now—patent your inventions. They might appear to be minor improvements. You and your company can ride those new products into profitable new territory.