Insider Science Fair Tip: Patent your ideas before or during your science fair
Some of the greatest ideas in the world had their start in a science fair. From inspiring Nobel prize winners to become scientists, to actually unveiling groundbreaking new ideas, science fairs are no longer venues for mixing red-dye colored vinegar and baking soda, in a big pile of clay with a hole and calling it a volcano. Nowadays, there’s real science going on. More than not, science fairs of today are places for cutting edge science & engineering in the making, and brand new inventions. Not only do many science fair projects end up becoming published peer reviewed research or even doctoral theses, but it turns out that many ideas you find at science fairs are quite patentable. In fact, in recent years, students can receive patents as one of their awards. Massachusetts was at the forefront of this new phenomenon.
What’s a patent? A patent is a way that countries allow for people with great ideas to have a time-limited exlusive right to commercialize or license that idea. It is effectively a government-condoned time-limited monopoly. It is meant as a legal reward for coming up with innovative new ideas, and for putting in the effort to do the scientific testing behind those ideas, to help society and/or the economy as a whole.
Fish & Richardson is a patent law company in Boston with a formidable reputation and which has been in business for over a century. In fact, they did the original patents for Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. However, they recognize that not all the greatest ideas in the world come from geniuses, nor from adults. For the past 5 years, they have been collaborating with the MA State Science & Engineering Fair to offer a very special award to the top students, with the most patentable projects. The Fish & Richardson Patent Award is carefully selected by a team of experienced attorneys, who do their “judging” somewhat secretly in advance of the fair by reading through all the abstracts. Then, after pre-selecting a number of projects to explore further, they judge for real and in-person at our annual high school statewide science fair, held at MIT (a good reason to make sure you are at your project at all times during the entire judging hours, even if you’re finished with your regular judges). They select several projects which they deem original, unique and patentable and give out awards during the regular award ceremony, on a weighted scale based both on rank and “patentability”.
The important thing to note about science & engineering fairs is that they are generally speaking, public events. So, if you have an unpatented idea, and you release it during a science fair, it can be “stolen” by just about anybody legitimately. It’s important to have proper patent protection in place when doing public events. A provisional patent (see the US patent process here: http://www.uspto.gov/patents/process/index.jsp) is a simple way to patent your idea easily with or without an attory for around $100 for a one year period, during which you can negotiate a license deal which may be able to pay the full filing fees (filing a real, long term patent can cost thousands to tens of thousands of dollars). It offers full protection, but you one get one year.
Fish & Richardson’s patent award, however, is the full prosecution, using their world class attorneys, and can be valued on the upwards of $30K or even $40K.
Here are a few examples of projects which have won MSSEF Fish & Richardson patent awards and have received their full patents, as high school students:
- Soap that changes color when you wash your hands long enough
- A better more comfortable low cost back brace for people with severe back problems
- A medical device that measures slight tremors and is able to predict epileptic seizures and severe episodes for people with neurological disorders
- … to name a few – 100% of the students who win the patent award so far have received their full patents
So, enter a patent competition today – or consider filing a provisional patent before your science fair. Not many young people do it — but it will win you big credentials if you do!