Being an entrepreneur has many benefits. For example, you can start off by selling sports performance equipment out of a storage shed, as I did. And in just a few years, you can become a large-scale distributor.
This article will explain how I was able to seize opportunity and become an inventor.
In 1998, when I started my journey as an entrepreneur, it was not initially clear what could be achieved. Entrepreneurship opens up a lot of opportunities. Entrepreneurship is limitless. Often, the only limit is your imagination. And creativity is the solution to economic constraints. It just takes longer to reach the goal.
There were a lot of success stories that happened along the way. Almost all of them were unexpected because entrepreneurship takes you on a path that is non-linear.
For example, most understand that success will be achieved at some point. Hard work eventually pays off. But it is not always clear how or when. There can be a lot of twists and turns, and luck almost always plays a part.
2008 Phone Call
In 2008, there was a large athlete management agency that facilitated all aspects of the Under Armour Combine, and they had purchased sporting goods from my company website. That organization was IMG Academy. A combine is just another name for a sports training camp.
Through the course of purchasing equipment, the team at IMG Academy reached out and asked if I knew anyone who sold a device that could measure wingspan.
For those who may not be familiar, wingspan, also known as arm span or reach, is a measure of distance from fingertip to fingertip with the arms outstretched to the sides.
At the highest level of sport, physical measurements are common. The measurements are used to predict athleticism. If two athletes were to jump for a loose ball, knowing their height and how high they can jump is simply not enough to predict which person is more likely to end up with the ball. We would need to know other factors like wingspan and even hand size.
The problem IMG encountered had to do with assessing the wingspan of more than 200 of the top high school-age football prospects in the nation. Whatever method they were using took too long, and they were looking for a way to streamline and reduce testing times.
Since I was a sports performance equipment retailer, I had a lot of connections with other suppliers, including ones that specifically sold medical testing supplies. So, I contacted them to see if they offered anything that could measure wingspan. Nothing. I then searched the internet. Nothing. I even did international searches. Nothing...
Seizing Opportunity And Becoming An Inventor
I thought to myself, if one of the most prominent companies in the world needed this device, then other organizations like high schools, colleges, professional sports leagues, and even the medical industry would probably see value in it.
Next, I hired a patent attorney who performed a more sophisticated prior art search. This is where they scour both national and international databases to determine if a similar invention was already in existence.
It was confirmed that there had been no such device on the market anywhere in the world. And I was given the green light to pursue a patent and begin manufacturing the device.
Developing a Prototype
The first thing I did was come up with a basic sketch of what I thought the device should look like. Since I was a fitness expert by trade, I first envisioned using technology that I was already familiar with.
The original concept was essentially a vertical weight bench, where the subject would lean up against a cushion. They would then extend their arms outward and a reading would be taken via telescoping scale.
But my original design had flaws and it was going to be heavy and bulky, which was going to affect the cost of shipping. And since the device’s sole purpose was for wingspan measurement, I felt it would have been difficult to justify the cost. To get around this issue, I was most likely going to have to redesign everything.
Over the next few months, I created roughly four or five prototypes. I eventually sought the help of mechanical engineers to move the project along quicker. But they became too expensive. So, I went back to the drawing board.
I discovered a way to enhance my invention by developing a method of affixing the wingspan measuring device to other fitness testing equipment.
I was also able to add value by incorporating a height rod. But not just any height rod—one that could assess virtually anyone from 2 feet tall all the way up to 8 feet tall. I figured out a way to do it.
At the same time, the device needed to measure wingspan up to 9 feet wide. I performed an extensive amount of research on everything from the longest basketball wingspan to the tallest person to ever live.
I also researched various testing methods that were used in prior scientific studies, where arm span or wingspan was assessed. I knew as a health scientist that any peer-reviewed study was going to have a "methods" section, which would tell me everything. How was wingspan measured? Were they using purchased devices? Were they using makeshift devices? What techniques did they use? The answers to these questions helped to further guide me.
Filing A Patent
For this device, my attorney and I originally filed a utility patent. Utility just meant that the invention was novel or new. But the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office alerted us to existing patents they believed could achieve similar results as my device. The following were used to challenge specific claims made in my patent application:
(RUSSIA) DEVICE FOR MEASURING ANTHROPOMETRIC PARAMETERS OF COSMONAUTS
(USA) TELESCOPING MEASURING DEVICE
(USA) NEUROMUSCULAR TESTING DEVICE AND METHOD TO USE
Neither device looked or functioned quite like mine. And none of the patents specifically included claims referencing arm span or wingspan measurement. Nothing close.
First-to-File Vs First-to-Invent
Prior to 2011, there were two legal concepts surrounding inventions: first-to-file and first-to-invent. Under the old legal framework, first-to-invent granted the patent to the person who both 1) conceived the idea and 2) turned the idea into a working model or prototype.
The rule eventually changed to first-to-file, which meant that a patent would only be granted based on who filed the formal application first.
The issue for me was I had been working on the device intermittently since 2008 or 2009. But I did not officially file a patent application until 2016.
Ultimately, my attorney and I decided it would be too costly to get the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to change their minds. Translation: This was more than $15,000 in patent and legal fees down the drain. That money was gone forever.
Dealing With Setbacks As An Inventor
When you become an inventor, you will probably experience a number of setbacks. I went through quite a few.
After the failed attempt at a utility patent, I then filed a design patent application. A design patent covers only the visual aspects or ornamental features of an existing product.
In the end, it took me nearly 7 years to finally bring the product to market. Cost was the biggest barrier. But I got it done.
Earlier, I mentioned that the catalyst for my invention was an inquiry from Under Amour or IMG Academy, which means they were technically my first customer. My second customer was the organization that facilitated the Nike football camp.
From the beginning, I was aware that my invention would only be of use to larger, more prominent organizations. Despite its limited utility, an invention like this automatically put you in the room with the big dogs, which could create further opportunities down the road.
And that is how I was able to seize opportunity and become an inventor.
My journey was quite different from most. Usually, someone first attempts to solve a problem. And while my invention does in fact solve a problem, I did not think of it that way originally.
At first, I simply wanted to create a makeshift, informal device for a high-profile customer [because timing was a factor]. Profit never crossed my mind.
Several months had passed before I even thought about pursuing a patent. My decision to formally become an inventor had more to do with the amount of time and effort I had spent on research and development.
Over the next few weeks, I will introduce both a YouTube series and eventually a complete course that breaks down all of the critical phases of inventing a product from idea to market.
Learn more about my inventions at leonardmfg.com
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