How to become an inventor: Part 3

By | 4 minute read | December 11, 2016

A few weeks ago, I posted a blog about the journey to invention that my team and I started as part of IBM’s Patent Group Incubator Project (PGIP). We have been undertaking an experiment examining whether the hypothesis ‘Anyone can invent would hold true. And so far, we’re on our way. My team’s on a roll, with three more disclosures currently going through the evaluation process. But with a lexicon involving terms such as ‘Publish’, ‘Search’, ‘Disclosure’ and more, the whole idea of inventing and patents can be a minefield. Where to start? Here to help is our very own 101 guide to patenting.

So, just what is a patent?

According to the Oxford Dictionary:


Pronunciation: /ˈpat(ə)nt/   Pronunciation: /ˈpeɪt(ə)nt/

[I say tomarto, you say tomayto, right?! No single correct way to say the word, for starters!]


A government authority or licence conferring a right or title for a set period, especially the sole right to exclude others from making, using, or selling an invention.

What this means is that your idea is protected by intellectual property rights for a given amount of time, while it’s shared in the public domain for others to see and understand. You have the right to profit from your idea and to seek financial redress if others use your idea without permission.

Patents are issued in certain countries, and there is no single patent office that ensures world wide protection. If you want to patent your idea in the UK, France and the US, you’ll have to go through different patent offices and get different types of patents issued. So it makes sense to try to get patents in the countries in which your idea is likely to be manufactured and marketed.

What makes an idea patentable?

There are three main criteria as to whether or not an idea might be patent-worthy, and unfortunately, one of them isn’t ‘just because it’s a good idea!’ In fact, plenty of bad ideas are still worthy of patents: this flame-throwing trumpet, anyone? Just Google ‘weird patents’ and see what comes up.

So, your invention or idea has to be:

  1. Novel: never been done before, either as a patent, a product or an idea from someone on an internet forum.
  2. Non-obvious: not a solution or idea that comes easily to the mind of a person who has reasonable skills within the area or industry your idea sits.
  3. Operable: it needs to work. However, you don’t have to have a working prototype – you just have to demonstrate that it would work in the way you describe. So you can’t start making things out of unobtainium or fueled by Unicorn tears, for instance.

What is the process to obtaining a patent?

First, you have to start with an idea. What’s your problem? Or what problems are other people facing that need solving? IBM Design Thinking helps here as it puts you in the shoes of an end user, if you aren’t already the end user yourself. How can this problem be solved?  If it’s a new type of self-tying shoelace, or a calorie-free chocolate cake, you might need to look for an IP Lawyer.

For the step by step process of applying for a patent, look at the US Patent office’s overview.

After submitting your patent there are three possible outcomes:

  1. Close: this is a bit of a dead end, but if you truly believe in your idea then you do have the opportunity to defend it and try to turn around the decision to close it. You might not win, but don’t be disheartened – even Master Inventors submit disclosures that get closed – so well done for trying, and now try again!
  2. Publish: this result is akin to a patent-lite. It’s not a patent, and there’s no real kudos in the form of a photo on the wall of fame in Hursley, but you do get a patent point against your name and these add up.
  3. Search: this is where it gets more interesting and could result in a patent being filed, which will give you three patent points and a financial reward – but equally it might still be a Publish. Or a Close.

The final outcome you’re hoping for is a File. This sets you up on the pedestal of inventor glory and is what this journey is all about.

But equally it’s about team work, creating, having fun and trying something new. We all sit there at times in our lives and think ‘wouldn’t it be great if…’ or ‘why doesn’t X exist,’ or ‘I’m sure there’s a better way to do this,’ which is all the mind of an inventor needs in order to get started.

Learn more

To learn more about how you can become an inventor check out the rest of our series:

Part 1: Could you be an inventor?

Part 2: It’s a question of problems