On a snowy, cold day in the Denver suburbs Glenn Vogel is tinkering in his laid back garage workspace.
“Welcome to the mess,” he said when he threw the door open.
Vogel’s a metal worker by trade. He lives part time in Glendo, Wyoming, but for years he’s run a custom metalworking business in Colorado. A few years back Vogel hit on a design for a new kind of high-end wine rack, he calls “Element.”
“The tubing we got is slit along the length,” Vogel said to describe the rack’s innovations. “And the lighting is inserted into that. So you can’t see the lighting and all the labels are lit.”
Vogel poured all of his efforts into the wine rack, which he figured could be his big idea. Building the thing went pretty smoothly, but then Vogel started looking into protecting his idea with a patent. That process can take a few years, and the quotes Vogel was getting from lawyers were pricey.
“Twenty-five to thirty thousand dollars to file the patent and get everything done. So I was sitting around scratching my head trying to figure out OK, I have two kids in college, how am I going to manage this?”
That might have been the end of Vogel’s big idea, but a friend told him about the patent pro bono program, then recently launched in Colorado. It pairs inventors who make less than three hundred percent of the federal poverty line--about $73,000 a year for a family of four--with a patent lawyer who will help them with their application for free. Vogel qualified for the program, got the legal help, and now has a patent on the Element.
“You're an inventor, they know the invention,” said Jennifer Rothschild, program administrator for the patent pro bono program based in Denver. “But they don’t know the law or the process to file the application.”
The patent pro bono program started serving Wyoming inventors a few months ago. In the past few years the patent pro bono program has connected lawyers with about ninety regional inventors like Vogel, working on everything from a rifle scope to a mechanized fishing troller. Rothschild said that, while there were already pro bono legal services in the area, most of them focused on things like housing or family law.
“There wasn’t previous to this a way for a patent lawyer, who is trained in a very specialized area of law, to give their time in the area that they know.”
The Denver program is one of about twenty that, together, cover inventors across the country. John KirkPatrick runs these programs for the U.S. Patent Office.
“Really the important thing is giving people participation in the patent system who wouldn’t be participating otherwise. And if things are successful for them they shift over to being job creators, in some cases.”
But while it may be a lot easier to file a patent application these days, becoming a successful inventor is still as tough as ever. Davona Douglass is the Director of the University of Wyoming’s Research Products Center, which protects intellectual property developed there.
“Just because you have a patent doesn’t mean you’ll have a new product. At the end of the day it is just a piece of paper.”
UW’s Research Products Center has filed more than seven hundred and fifty patents since the late ‘90s: just ten percent of those have been licensed for commercial use. And even less actually become products. Douglas says big companies are approached all the time by patent holders looking to sell their idea--getting them to bite can be very difficult. And if you don’t have a good grasp of your market even good ideas can go unnoticed. Douglass says there is a “valley of death” between patent and product.
“Most inventions, you know they are a great idea, but to actually get to a commercial product, somehow they have to get through that valley of death. And that takes a lot of money and investment and time.”
Glenn Vogel says he’s done $30,000 in sales of the Element wine rack over the last year. But he says he won’t be joining Steve Jobs in the garage inventor pantheon just yet.
“I would love to put myself up at that level. But unfortunately, the Ferrari is a ways off.”
But Vogel says he is planning to expand his manufacturing operation--into a space little bigger than his garage.