Though the awarding of patents depends upon discoveries that are novel “to a person having ordinary skill in the art to which said subject matter pertains,” the truth is that virtually no invention comes out of a total vacuum.
With the sheer amount of innovation that has occurred in the last half century, and with the United States Patent Office (USPTO) having awarded over 8 million patents, true breakthroughs almost always occur through the synergy of one or more existing inventions.
We could argue that the trait that separates inventors from everyone else is to be able to make the connections between a current problem and existing solutions, even if those solutions are from a seemingly unrelated field of knowledge. According to Tom McCaffery, an innovation researcher, we no longer have to rely on this rare talent alone for our novel inventions – we can get a boost through mining the USPTO and other invention databases.
Writing in the Harvard Business Review, McCaffery has given key examples of the “analogous solution.” For instance, to stop skiers from losing control at high speeds, a company fitted metal grids into its ski designs – a feature used to stabilize violin vibrations. Furthermore, a company working on carbon filters adopted the mechanisms for carbon dioxide removal that occur in the human bloodstream.
Research on topics such as this lead to the creation of a software platform called Analogy Finder. The service allows inventors, entrepreneurs, and problem solvers to churn through the 7 million USPTO patents that have been digitized with the goal of finding such analogous solutions. For instance, the key terms “remove carbon” could very easily have connected medical device patents to smokestack filters.
Of course, idea generation is just the first part of seeing a patent through to completion. We may consider viability of a solution to be the most crucial factor, but after committing to an idea there will be long work ahead in securing finances, design, refinement, testing, legal research, and the entire patent office process.