One of the most important steps in realizing a product invention is prototyping. In addition to providing a physical manifestation of the idea to further refine the concept to a more feasible problem solution, it’s a needed step to make the concept real for others as well, such as potential investors. While inventors have, on rare occasion, been able to secure orders with just a rough description of their concept, most investors and potential licensors or that product respond more favorably with functional prototype completed before they consider investing time, money, or resources.

Ideally, the inventor can spend a small initial amount on the prototype before committing to the large sums of money required for commercial production manufacturing tests, which can be very costly. Thankfully, there are multiple low-cost resources available to develop a workable prototype that provides inventors with something approximating their final product.

One option is to partner with the federal government to help support the development of your prototype, if there is alignment of your product with their needs. The Small Business Innovation Research considered the largest seed program in the United States provides funds upwards of one million dollars for the proposed research and development efforts to help decipher the technical merit, feasibility, and commercial potential of a novel concept. It’s also important to understand that while the SBIR helps fund the development, it does not request ownership (fractional or otherwise) of the invention or impose IP restrictions, which is a concern of most inventors.

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A second option is to partner with a local university to develop your prototype. Universities have a lot to offer at an affordable price. They have great facilities as well as motivated, enthusiastic faculty and students to support the inventor. Many universities offer students the opportunity to work with independent inventors and small businesses to develop a proof of concept and the feasibility testing of a new product. Brown University BEO is a example of such a program: sponsored by the departments of Economics and Sociology and the School of Engineering, it assigns student teams to work with companies to create a start-up venture that will bring a technology solution to market. A faculty advisor supervises project teams, usually comprised of five students and a mentor from the sponsor organization to provide project context. The goal of this program culminating in a capstone project with the intention of targeting a real world problem and understanding (and overcoming) the challenges of a sponsor organization.

A third option is to partner with a fabrication and prototyping “maker space” - a collaborative space of resources and hobbyists that are commonly found in most communities. TechShop is one such example which has multiple locations throughout the country providing access to tools, software and space providing access to over $1 million worth of professional equipment and software for a moderate membership fee. Each of the facilities includes tools and expertise that traditionally have been restricted to professional manufacturing enterprises, such as laser cutters, plastics and electronics labs, wood and metal shops, and much more. Members also have open access to design software required to design their prototype for manufacturing, and to skilled trainers who are eager to share their knowledge. ADX Portland is a great regional example of a neighborhood maker space, with a single 14,000 square foot facility for high-profile designer, students, retirees, inventors, small businesses, and hobbyists to develop prototypes through a membership.

It’s a great time to be an inventor. There are numerous cost-effective options for prototype development by inventors. Finding the right partner in the process can provide you with an opportunity to not only get the assistance but also critical feedback to strengthen your concept as it evolves.

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