Drop-Stop-on-Shark-Tank

Overcoming Fears to Monetize an Invention

Patents, Start Ups

As an independent inventor, taking steps to bring your idea to market can be terrifying. But you can do it with a little help.

An invention is a creation that solves a problem. Whether the problem is understood by a handful of experts or is a challenge that millions of people face every day – the solution must be unique. It could be an algorithm that is only known deep within the working of software. The solution could be a simple item presented to the masses on a Saturday morning infomercial. To move into production and the market, the uniqueness requires protection. Without protection, the newly-hatched intellectual property, along with the dollars in which it nests, are at risk of being swept away. What are the frightening parts of getting an invention protected, so you can have a marketable product?

Mark Newburger and Jeffrey Simon are the inventors of the Drop Stop®, a seat-gap filler for your car, truck, or van. You know the gap: that black abyss like the crevasse in a glacier that swallows everything that slips over the edge of a car seat. And when something falls, it is human nature to bend down to pick it up. The problem that the inventive friends identified was deeper than losing change and French fries, though; their first concern was about a cell phone and our addiction to it. In the age of distracted-driving awareness (or lack thereof), not only is the cell phone a danger when it is in a driver’s hand, but also when it falls away from their hand. When a driver realizes that their phone has slipped into the gap-of-no-return, they repeatedly take their eyes off the road, reach and grab for the phone, and in doing so often turn the steering wheel with them. The car can swerve, go off the road, and possibly damage other vehicles or injure someone. Now, the seat gap has gone from an annoyance to a dangerous agent of driving interference.

Newburger had such a harrowing experience. He did go off the road and nearly into a pedestrian and a pole while reaching for a wayward cell phone. The close-call not only scared him, but also motivated the invention of the Drop Stop as a way to keep drivers focused on the road and not on what is dropping between the seats. The Drop Stop is a soft, flexible neoprene wedge that secures to the seat belt and fills the gap between the car seat and the center console. It is a seemingly simple solution, and a good idea for reducing driver distraction (and maybe keeping the car a little cleaner).

But developing good ideas, even those that seem straightforward, is an expensive venture. Unlike scientists in the labs at global corporations, the two California-based short filmmakers/producers did not have the capital nor a budget for product development. They turned to friends, relatives, and personal caches to fund their endeavor. An interview with CNBC revealed: “the two ‘inventors’ started asking friends and family for money, without telling them what the product was. Simon was terrified someone would steal their idea.”[1] They were building an unprotected invention.

People gave them faith and funding. As their backers joined, the duo promised multiple people $1 million each when the Drop Stop was a success. With these promises came heavier responsibility, greater risk, and a new kind of fear for Newburger and Simon.

The best way to assuage the terror and protect their intellectual property was to secure a patent. Then, the idea could not only be revealed to their immediate supporters, but also be presented for more serious investment deals. With due diligence, the inventors first determined that their idea was, indeed, unique. Very little prior art was available that addressed the car-seat-gap problem, and none used the materials and notch for the seatbelt anchor that their design presented. The Stop Drop has a hole that secures over the seatbelt, so that it moves with the seat. This is a core innovative component.

On the day that Simon was about to make another frightening dip of $350,000 into some inheritance money to put toward the cause, Newburger received an email from their attorney that the badly needed patent grant had come through. On September 18, 2012, US8267291: Apparatus for Closing Gaps, was published by the USPTO [3]. This was a huge relief, a tremendous way to secure the value of the intellectual property, and a much-needed key to open more doors.

Figure: Apparatus for Closing Gaps [3]

drop-stop-invention-figure

On season 4 of Shark Tank, Newburger and Simon made their Drop Stop pitch to the Sharks. Although they had already begun selling on QVC and on their website, the inventors-now-entrepreneurs needed help expanding their market. Following the team’s 2013 presentation on the show, Shark Lori Greiner joined as an owner. She would receive 20% of the company and provide additional funds as well as expert guidance into more retailers. Now, you can get a Drop Stop at Walmart or on Amazon.

Of course, you can see Newburger and Simon in their loud and awkwardly-excited infomercial. But this story is not about whether an advertisement for a new product is smooth and sexy. It is about how an invention was born out of fear, how the inventors overcame terror, and how a simple idea became protected intellectual property that is now working to protect people – with a healthy return on investment! As of December 2017, the Drop Stop had evolved from a pile of possibilities to a $24 million business [1].

The Drop Stop came to life in a learn-by-doing inventive process. It was grass-roots: identify a problem, create a solution, figure out how to make it, get some money behind it, and then do your homework to make sure the idea is unique. Then, apply for a patent with the knowledge that your innovation is new, useful, and not already obvious to people familiar with the art.

But you don’t always have to trip your way through the idea-to-monetization progression. There are tools for searching and analytics to help make sure you are headed in the right direction. Check out the Prior Art Database, InnovationQ and InnovationQ Plus, and Insight Reports at IP.com. They will save you time and money, and take some of the fear out of navigating the IP landscape.

References
[1] https://www.cnbc.com/2017/12/20/how-2-friends-turned-shark-tank-backed-drop-stop-into-a-24m-business.html. Accessed 10/4/2018.
[2] https://www.buydropstop.com/index.html. Accessed 10/4/2018.
[3] https://iq.ip.com/. Accessed 10/5/2018.