How to Secure a Patent and Protect Your Big Idea
Kate Westad, the founder of Palette by Pak, shares her tips for other entrepreneurs looking to do the same.
Have you ever wondered how to turn your dreams of owning your own business into a reality? We can help. Each week, as part of our Self Made series, we showcase female entrepreneurs—as well as their quality, handmade goods—and share their best advice related to starting, maintaining, and growing your own business.
It all started with a suitcase. When Kate Westad was packing for a trip to Paris and the South of France, she struggled to fit all of her skincare routine into her bag without breeching TSA protocol. (Since she was packing last-minute, picking up travel-sized cosmetics was out of the questions.) That dilemma—one that so many frequent flyers experienced—inspired her to launch her company, Palette by Pak.
"In that moment, I could see so clearly what I needed," Westad explains. "I could see the Original High Fiver, where I could just pack up everything and take my skincare routine with me. There had to be a better way—and that was it." In 2019, Palette by Pak launched with the Original High Fiver ($39, palettebypak.com), a set of five reusable containers designed to take your full-sized skincare routine on the go. Not only is each container leak-resistant and TSA-compliant, but they're also designed to get every last drop of your creams, cleaners, and serums.
Thanks to her background as a lawyer, Westad knew there was one thing she needed to do before turning her vision into a full-fledged business: secure a patent. "As a high-level overview, the reason to have intellectual property protection for your invention or ideation is so that others can't come and recreate it for a certain period of time," she explains. "What you can see happening, unfortunately, is a scenario where an inventor creates and brings an amazing thing into the world and if they do not protect it—a large company or someone with greater resources can come and reap the benefits of the invention."
Often, securing a patent can be time-consuming, expensive, and confusing. Though Westad is not a patent lawyer—she says there's a reason why these professionals take a specific bar exam—here's her advice based on her experience.
Keep Your Idea on the Down-Low
When you come up with a million-dollar invention, you want to tell everyone about it, but instead of shouting your bright idea from the top of a proverbial mountain, Westad recommends remaining tight-lipped for now. "A word of caution to all would-be inventors: You definitely don't want to pre-disclose or pre-publicize something before you have taken the proper steps with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (or USPTO) to protect your idea or your invention and properly disclose it through the patent process," she says. "An experienced lawyer can help you map out the proper steps to take and safeguards to implement along the way."
Admittedly, a patent may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you have a shiny, new business venture at your fingertips. However, Westad says it should be one of the very first steps you take a small business owner. Unfortunately, disclosing or publicizing your big idea can possibly take away from, eliminate, or limit your potential protection. "I have run into so many amazing women who are making amazing products," she explains. "I'd ask, 'Did you patent this?' And they say, 'I can't, because I'd already told someone' or they had started the initial phase of their product development before they realized that maybe this was patentable."
Hire a Professional
Speaking of legal council, Westad recommends enlisting a patent lawyer to help you with the process. Though Westad has a legal background, she reveals she hired patent lawyers to help her with the process. "Lawyers sometimes get a bad rap," she says. "They are actually true helpers with an extraordinary amount of training and experience. And many lawyers are actually very generous with their time. I can't even tell you how many lawyers would likely give someone a free consult or charge them a nominal fee to have an initial discussion. So the question is, if you have this idea, why not know what your protection rights are and then go from there?"
Hiring a lawyer can sound like an expensive, time-consuming, and cost-prohibitive, but Westad says there are ways small business owners can get the support they need. "I know several female inventors who received patent assistance and from universities and their are grants available through organizations and certain government agencies," she says. "Patent attorneys may also offer their services pro-bono or volunteer their time through various organizations. And while hiring an experienced attorney to help is always best option, the USPTO also has a pro se assistance program that people can look into."
Know the Process
Before you get started, it's important to understand the difference between the two patents. A design patent protects the overall design, while a utility patent covers the purpose of your product. At Palette by Pak, the design patent has been granted in the United States and internationally, and the utility patent is pending. To make matters more complicated, patents vary by country. "It is important to think about and discuss with your attorney early on where and how you plan to seek protection," she says. "For us, I always envisioned the High Fiver as a global problem solver so we were smart to look at it from a global perspective from the beginning."
According to Westad, the patent process might vary based on the invention. (For example, a topical beauty product will involve chemistry and formulation, while a durable good like the High Fiver won't.) But, no matter what you're working on, keep your big idea close to the chest. "You have to make sure there's no pre-disclosure or publication outside the patent disclosure you will ultimately make," she says. "In general, you have to have your idea, your invention, your concept, whatever it is that you believe that you can have protection for, then you would go to your credible and experienced patent lawyer and have them help you with the process and to ensure it is indeed a novel design or invention."
Another thing to know? It can be a long process. Westad filed the High Fiver's design patent in 2018 in the United States towards the beginning of the year, and it was just granted in the fall of 2020. "Other countries can take a shorter or even longer timeframe," she adds.
Tap Into Your Community
Did you know that only 12 percent of patent holders are female? Westad says that percentage gets even smaller when you narrow it down to solo female founders. The Palette by Pak founder thinks there's a direct correlation between lack of funding and awareness. (In fact a recent report from Crunchbase found sole female founders raised $1 billion less than their male counterparts last year, despite epic funding statistics.)
Not only does Westad encourage aspiring founders to connect with entrepreneurs who have gone through the patent process before, but she also encourages you to believe in your big idea. "Millions of these minis and travel sizes are made every year," Westad says. "It's a billion plus beauty category all on its own. And to think that using a refillable beauty reusable, like The Original High Fiver, can keep millions of those unrecyclable tiny plastics out of the landfills, out of our oceans and our waterways. I mean, that's incredible. It's so important for people to not discount their ideas and to not think that they're not smart enough or experienced enough or don't have enough resources to bring something forward in the world because if I can do it, they can do it. The world needs your inventions and innovative ideas."