In 2010, Alexandra Abraham was working for a catering service. One day, while working a job at the Salish Lodge & Spa in Seattle, she slipped on a wet floor and nearly fell to the ground. Although an unsettling experience, it got her thinking.
There are often wet spots on the floors of hotel and restaurant kitch-ens. The main culprit is water that drips from glass-drying racks. Commercial kitchens have square racks that dirty glasses are placed into. The racks are run through a dishwasher, which both washes and dries the glasses. When a rack comes out, some of the glasses typically aren’t completely dried. When the rack is moved, water drips to the floor. Abraham knew that the number one cause of in- jury in commercial kitchens is falling. She went to her manager and asked if there was a way to catch the excess water before it fell to the floor. The response she got was if she could figure out a way to do it, the catering service would be her first customer.
That experience set Abraham on a mission—to design a product that would catch water dripping from glasses in glass-drying racks. She put together some preliminary drawings. Her idea was to cre- ate a basin or tray that snaps below glass and dishwasher racks to catch water that might otherwise drip to the floor. Along with water that is still on glasses when they come out of the dishwasher, water is also spilled when servers fill water glasses before they are placed on tables. If glasses were left in a rack, with Abraham’s tray below, there wouldn’t be a possibility of spilling water at any point in the process. Errant water would be caught by the rack. Abraham showed her drawings around some and got positive feedback. She knew she’d need CAD drawings done if she wanted to show the concept to potential manufacturers and buyers, so she e- mailed the engineering department at Seattle University asking for help. It turned out that there were plenty of students looking for practical experience and she got CAD drawings developed for her concept.
The next step was to see if there was genuine interest for her product in the restaurant industry. Abraham took a chance and sent a blind e-mail to Tom Douglas, one of Seattle’s most well-known chefs, asking him to review and endorse her in- vention. The subject line of the e-mail read “College student seeking Mr. Douglas’s help.” In two days she had an appointment with Douglas, and showed him an early prototype. She explained to him that DripCatch, the name she gave her product, was a simple device that collects water from glass-drying racks commonly used in restaurants. It prevents slips and falls caused by dripping water. She remembers asking him “What do you think?” “He just shook my hand and said, ‘Congratulations, what do you want from me?’”1 What Abraham wanted was an endorsement, which Douglas provided. There has since been an image of Douglas on DripCatch’s web- site, with a quote that reads:
“It’s great to find a product that makes you smack your head and go ‘Perfect! That’s just what we need! It keeps our floors drier, our employees and customers safer, the restaurant cleaner and me happier … win, win, win!”2
Now that Abraham knew she was on to something, building a company and protect- ing her intellectual property became a key pursuit. She started by making another cold call, this time to Seattle area entrepreneur Tom Burns. Burns, a long-time Boeing executive, quit his job and became an entrepreneur after he invented a series of small sticks that plug the holes in hot beverage lids, thus eliminating spilling and keeping the beverages hot longer. Burns’s company, StixTogo (https://stixtogo.com), has placed its product in more than 30,000 coffee shops, restaurants, and convenience stores worldwide. Abraham connected with Burns, who provided her assistance in filing a provisional patent application on the DripCatch device. Abraham retained a patent agent to file for a utility patent. The patent agent was assisted by an attorney, who also helped Abraham trademark the DripCatch name. The utility patent application is cur- rently pending. Trademarks can be viewed at the U.S. Patent and Trademark’s website at www.uspto.gov. Simply go to the website, select trademarks, and place the name of the mark in the search bar. DripCatch’s trademark can be viewed at http://tmsearch. uspto.gov/bin/showfield?f=doc&state=4803:nlrmr.2.1.
While waiting for the utility patent to be granted, Abraham has been busy making and marketing her product. She found a local contract manufacturer—Woodinville’s Cashmere Molding—to produce the DripCatch tray for less than she could produce them overseas. She signed an agreement with a restaurant-equipment distributor, which is now selling the DripCatch device. She is currently looking for an affiliation with a distributor that has a national reach and representatives in every major city calling on restaurants, hotels, and institutions such as hospitals and schools that could benefit by using DripCatch trays in their kitchens. She is also looking for a manufacturer who has a major presence in her industry.
While the DripCatch device is gaining sales, Abraham says that her exit strategy is probably licensing or a buyout option. “We’re more of a product than a company,” she acknowledges.3 In terms of overall potential, Abraham sees the sky as the limit. The problem her DripCatch device solves is a problem that exists in every commercial and industrial kitchen in the world. Once granted, her patent will give her exclusive rights to DripCatch’s approach to solving the problem.
Many entrepreneurial firms have valuable intellectual property. In fact, virtually all businesses, including start-ups, have knowledge, informa- tion, and ideas that are critical to their success.
For at least three reasons, it is important for businesses to recognize what intellectual property is and how to protect it. First, the intellectual property of a business often represents its most valuable asset.4 Think of the value of the Facebook and Google trademarks, the Nike “swoosh” logo, or the design of the Apple iPhone. All of these are examples of intellectual property, and because of intellectual property laws, they are the exclusive properties of the firms that own them. Second, it is important to understand what intellectual property is and how to protect it to avoid unintentional violations of intellectual property laws. For example, imagine the hardship facing an entrepreneurial start-up if it selected a name for its business, heavily advertised that name, and was later forced to change the name because it was infringing on a trademark. Finally, in- tellectual property can be licensed or sold, providing valuable licensing income. This is what Alexandra Abraham may ultimately do with her DripCatch product.
We begin this chapter by defining intellectual property and exploring when intellectual property protection is warranted. There are costs involved with legally protecting intellectual property, and the costs sometimes outweigh the benefits, at least in the short term. We then describe the four key forms of in- tellectual property. The chapter ends with a discussion of the importance of conducting an intellectual property audit, which is a proactive tool an entrepre- neurial firm can use to catalog the intellectual property it owns and determine how its intellectual property should be protected.
Source: Barringer Bruce R, Ireland R Duane (2015), Entrepreneurship: successfully launching new ventures, Pearson; 5th edition.