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While attending the French Culinary Institute in New York in 1995, John Waters was bitten by the inventor’s bug. "One of my classmates was burned while carrying a hot pot with a wet towel," says the 50-year-old entrepreneur of New Haven, Connecticut. "We were doing things fast and sometimes haphazardly and I thought, ‘What can I do to stop this nonsense?’" His solution, the Grip Mitt (888-652-8090; www.gripmittmk.com), came about shortly after he graduated from the Institute in October 1995.
Imitating the basic construction of a traditional oven mitt, Waters took the design a step further and added a wide extension strap with Velcro fastenings to hang it from the user’s belt. "It’s the extension that makes this product different," Waters says, "because now you have a mitt that is not only portable but provides extra protection for your forearms as well."
From William Purvis’ creation of the fountain pen to Dr. Charles Drew’s development of methods to preserve blood plasma, African American innovation and ingenuity have existed in the U.S. since the early 1890s. Last year, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) granted 163,209 patents, and experts estimate that 1 out of 5,000 inventions have gone on to successful product launches. To succeed against such overwhelming odds, today’s black inventors must learn how to thoroughly research their inventions, file patent protection, and market, finance and distribute their products if they are to reap rewards in the marketplace.
THE BIRTH OF AN IDEA
to help determine if their idea is truly unique, many inventors conduct their initial research by comparing their idea with what’s already on store shelves. But a more productive method is to conduct a patent search, which lists any "prior art" or similar patents on your idea. You can get a patent agent or attorney to conduct a search for you.
"Usually a computerized search costs $75 to $300," says Mark Books, a patent attorney with the law firm Polster, Lieder, Woodruff & Lucchesi in St. Louis. "However, [older patents sometimes] have to be done manually, and costs can range from $500 to $700 or more."
A more time-consuming but cost-effective alternative is to do the research yourself. Depository libraries, with listings of existing patents — usually found at large public libraries around the country — are established by the PTO, the federal agency that grants protection of intellectual property. Check the PTO’s Website (www.uspto.gov/go/ptdl) or call 800-786-9199 to locate a depository library in your area.
What if you find there are several patents with designs similar to yours? Don’t despair. There are other ways to establish your "proprietary picket fences," such as brand name, trademark and copyrighting.
Thomasetta "Thomie" Harper first conceived of the idea for Shoulder*Gard (800-420-6563), a shoulder strap retainer accessory, in 1978, while wearing a trench coat. "I used the epaulets of my coat to button in my handbag to prevent it from slipping off my shoulder. I thought ‘there has to be