What Startup Founders Need to Know About Patents

Innovation is the currency that can set a company apart. But how do startups protect their ideas and inventions?

Patents are a key tool in this endeavor, but navigating the patent landscape can be a complex task for startup founders.
This article summarizes the basics every startup founder should understand.

Importance of an Early Priority Date

An early filing date is critical for two reasons:

Absolute Novelty Principle: Virtually all patent systems in the world are built on the concept of absolute novelty. This means that anything which is made available to the public cannot be patented anymore. This includes publications in any form, whether through a written publication, a public presentation, a YouTube video, and even by talking to someone who isn’t bound to confidentiality

Importantly, also publications by the inventors themselves can destroy the novelty of a later patent application. One notable exception is the the United States, offering a one-year grace period even after public disclosure by the inventors.

First to File Principle: In the patent world, timing is everything. The first to file principle means that if two people come up with the same invention independently, it is the one who files the patent application first that gets the rights to the patent.

This rule underscores the importance of filing patent applications early in the development process.

Importance of a High-Quality Initial Filing

The patent claims (which define the scope of protection) normally need to be narrowed down during the discussion with the patent examiner, before a patent can be granted. However, we can only add limitations to the claims which were disclosed in the originally filed application.

Therefore, a high-quality initial patent filing is crucial.

Unimportance of Quickly Granted Patents

This may sound counter-intuitive, but here’s why:

High Costs of Obtaining Patents: The process from the initial patent filing to the granted patent can amount to €25,000 or more in a single country or region. This is a significant investment, especially for early-stage startups operating with limited budgets.

Fixed Scope of Protection: A granted patent has a specific, fixed scope of protection. Startups, particularly in their early stages, often pivot and evolve their technology, making it practically impossible to predict which aspects of their invention will be most valuable or patent-worthy in the long term.

Geographical Limitations: Patents are territorial, meaning they only provide protection in the countries or regions where they are granted. For startups uncertain about which markets will be most relevant for their products or services, deciding where in the world to seek patent protection should be delayed as much as possible.

File Early, Scale Wisely

Combining all of the above points, most startups should obtain an early filing date for their inventions, but then delay the high costs and absolute decisions needed in the patent examination process as much as possible.

An example of this strategy can be seen in Humane Inc.’s patent portfolio. Although their Ai Pin hit the market only in late 2023, they filed their first patent family early on in 2017.

This patent famility meanwhile includes granted patents in the US and Japan, illustrated by teh green lines in the above picture, with patent applications still pending in Europe, Canada, China and South Korea.

Furthermore, Humane didn’t bet everything on one card but has built an impressive portfolio of 15 published patent families over time, demonstrating a robust and proactive patent strategy.

This approach allows startups to build a strong IP position while spreading out the costs and staying flexible to changing business strategies and market needs.

Start Your Patent Journey Now

If you’re ready for the ride, I invite you to Patent Scale-Up, my modular program designed specifically for startup founders who want to build a strong IP position the clever way. Take control of your intellectual property — one conversation can make all the difference for your startup’s success!

We can start right now.

– Basti