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Have an idea for an invention but no formal training? Here’s how to do it

By Nick Williams, Star Tribune
Published: March 17, 2024, 5:29am

Each year through the past decade, at least half a million patent applications come into the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Some of the applications are from firms equipped with financial resources, machinery and a workforce with the necessary skills required to design and manufacture a product. Filing the patent protects from others using, copying or making the idea or product.

For solo inventors, however, filing a patent is a milestone toward commercializing their idea.

Not long after incorporating her business in 2021, Ashley Mooneyham filed a patent through her company, Momease Solutions, for her creation of a special bra for mothers using breast pumps. By filing the patent, Mooneyham and co-founder Jennie Lynch could speak more publicly about the pumping bra at pitch competitions and in applications for various grants, from which they’ve received thousands of dollars so far.

It was an important step for Mooneyham, who had never before tried to commercialize a product.

For those mulling the thought of pursuing the creation of their idea, here’s advice from a few entrepreneurs who took the leap and made the invention in their head into a tangible reality.

Test the theory

When DeLonn Crosby set out to create an educational and voice-interactive companion plush toy for children, he made a list of all the features the toy had to have. It had to be inexpensive, tangible and screenless. It also had to strengthen relationships within families and be accessible so people with different life experiences could achieve the same benefit.

All those qualities played a role into the design of the toy, called ToyBot, which his company, SayKid, makes.

Among its greatest features, though, would be the toy’s ability to interact with children. Crosby built literacy challenges on Amazon’s Alexa voice interaction platform and tested the program with his own children using an early version of the plush toy. Doing both reassured him his dream was achievable.

Mooneyham returned to the office in April 2021 following eight weeks of maternity leave. She anticipated being able to use breast pumping devices at work. The amount of milk she produced, however, was dramatically lower than expected, forcing her to introduce formulas sooner than intended.

Upon research, Mooneyham learned that women who added a warm compress to the breast while using a breast pump achieved 50% greater milk output in less time. That led to her idea for a pumping bra with warming and massage components.

“I knew the path would be challenging, so I really sat with the idea for a few months before I pulled the trigger on executing,” Mooneyham said. “(I) spent time sitting with the idea, mulling it over, seeing if it has that stickiness and talking to founders in business to really start to flesh it out and see if it has legs.”

To test the concept of a weight scale for ambulance gurneys, inventor Tristen Hazlett bought a used gurney for $1,500. His goal was to create a weight scale that emergency response workers could use in the field to administer the appropriate dosages in medical emergencies.

Using leftover funds from his student loans, Hazlett developed the first weight scale with his younger brother, Colton Hazlett, and college friend Michael Elsbernd in his parents’ basement. They used computer-aided design to create a model and prototype. Those results laid the foundation for Hazlett’s company, Lakeville, Minnesota-based Hinckley Medical, that now sells its weight scale to roughly 20 medical departments in six states, including HCMC, the company’s biggest customer.

Ryan Davenport achieved proof of concept for his company’s design — a wearable vest equipped with airbags that deploy once a person begins to fall — by partnering with a group of students for a class project at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. The results gave Davenport an example to show potential investors.

A design firm or DIY

Creating the prototype was the first barrier to commercialization for Mooneyham.

“I had an idea, but I don’t have an engineering background so I wasn’t able to execute on that idea independently and didn’t have a lot of money to get this off the ground,” she said.

Mooneyham sought the help of professionals at Kablooe Design — a Minneapolis product research, design and development firm — to create her pumping bra product. It’s the same firm where Davenport is having his SAF-T VEST invention developed.

Kablooe staff “were very receptive to startup people with an idea they want to try to develop,” Davenport said. They were also willing to work within Davenport’s budget. Davenport raised roughly $80,000 through a crowdfunding campaign, of which 90% went toward paying for engineering.

While Davenport could have tried to hire a team of engineers to build the vest under the umbrella of his company, bankrolling a payroll wasn’t feasible at the time.

Recently, engineers at Kablooe tested newly designed airbags, giving Davenport results and visual proof to show at CES, the annual innovation trade show in Las Vegas produced by the Consumer Technology Association.

While it might appear simple, the ToyBot product is complex. It uses an Amazon smart speaker and portable battery for charging the speaker. A specially engineered foam holds the battery in place. To advance the design of the invention, Crosby attended toy expos and met with toy industry experts. He also connected with college students studying software development. Those connections led to the manufacturing of his ToyBot.

After four years and countless versions, last December, Crosby set up a pop-up shop in the Rosedale Center in Roseville, Minnesota, where shoppers purchased the toys in time for Christmas.

Initially, a designer sketched Crosby’s toy idea to paper.

“And I thought, ‘We’ll just go make that,’” Crosby said. An untrained seamster, Crosby purchased a sewing machine and fabric to create the design. The result was “laughable,” he said, but through hands-on experiences, he was better equipped to problem solve and innovate the design and development of his invention, spawned from his family’s experience with early childhood education.

Hands-on and experiential learning are what carried development at Hinckley Medical, mostly because the company’s founders couldn’t afford a consultant, Hazlett said. It took 40 iterations of the scale to land on something fieldworthy, he said.

With a patent filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Hazlett and his founders welcomed opinions from the innovation community about their scale, which helped with redesigns.

“We were a glass window,” he said. “We weren’t afraid of someone trying to steal our tech. They couldn’t replicate it if they tried.”

Capital needs

When building a prototype, understanding supply costs is essential, Mooneyham said.

“You constantly need to look ahead that you’re placing orders well in advance of when you need it,” she said. “With every dollar being so special, [you] need to be smart.”

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For Hinckley Medical, choosing a more expensive load cell early in the development stage disrupted expenses, Hazlett said. The loading cell he initially used was $30 each, while much a cheaper product was $3 each. He could have used that and received better results, he said. As regrettable as that was, it was a lesson in managing funds. Hinckley Medical recently closed on $1.1 million in seed funding to expand sales and manufacturing and software development.

To start, Davenport and his father invested about $50,000 of their own money into the SAF-T-VEST but quickly realized they couldn’t advance the project without financial help, he said. Investors, mostly those focused on software companies, were hesitant to put money into the business. They wanted more evidence of its functionality, Davenport said. After fielding a working estimate from Kablooe on how much it would cost to build a prototype, the crowdfunding route provided enough funds to take the company to the next level.

“It gave us what we needed to be able to create a video showing a forward fall and backward fall, and that was great,” Davenport said. “Our gamble was, if we can get to that, that will show people what we’re talking about.”