By Jelani Odlum
Louis Foreman is the CEO of product development firm Enventys, publisher of Inventors Digest, adjunct professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Queens University, and the Entrepreneur in Residence at The McColl School of Business. A prolific inventor, Mr. Foreman holds 12 registered US patents, and has overseen the development, filing, and commercialization of over 700 more. We recently discussed his experiences in entrepreneurship and the importance of intellectual property education in supporting innovation.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
How did you get started in entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurship came to me pretty early as a kid, but I’d trace my real start to my sophomore year in college. I played lacrosse at the University of Illinois and we didn’t have a local equipment supplier. It was the mid-eighties and there was no internet or website where you could buy what you needed online, so I set up my first business selling lacrosse gear out of my fraternity room.
You were executive producer of the award-winning PBS show Everyday Edisons. What were you hoping to accomplish with the series?
We were looking to inspire people to follow through on their great ideas and educate them on the process. Many people never execute their idea, and there wasn’t a venue to educate people using reality TV. So in 2005, we set out to create a reality show that would showcase people taking a concept from a napkin sketch to a product on the store shelf.
Do you have a favorite product that came out of the show?
It’s like asking who your favorite kid is – they’re all my favorite! The Stark prosthetic hand from Season 4 wasn’t a big moneymaker, but we were one of the first companies to develop an affordable prosthetic that cost less than $200. Popular Science magazine named it one of the inventions of the year. So many products that we created over four seasons are significant for one reason or another, whether it be sales, or impact, or a technological advancement that was made to make the product work.
As an adjunct professor of entrepreneurship and innovation, what do you think students can learn by embracing the study of these topics?
I believe that entrepreneurship courses teach students the skills that entrepreneurs use to be successful. Being an entrepreneur is about managing the unknown, and successful entrepreneurs are able to process the relationship between risk and reward using their guts. Some of my students have started businesses, but many more have gone on to become better employees. They’re now much more autonomous and able to look at situations and effectively assess the return on investment and make quicker decisions.
You’ve been an invaluable supporter of our Michelson IP initiative since its early days. Why would you say IP literacy is so important to address and understand?
Intellectual property is absolutely essential for all businesses. It’s an asset that can be used in offensive and defensive strategies, and to raise capital and generate revenue. Understanding IP is important when getting a business off the ground as you have to be respectful not to inadvertently infringe on the IP of others and expose your business to liability. In many cases, entrepreneurs develop and sell products then try to file the patent later, only to find that it’s no longer eligible and they’ve destroyed the novelty of their invention by disclosing it publicly. So understanding how intellectual property works and the different forms of IP are really the pillars that support a business.
What’s been your approach to teaching IP in the classroom?
I try to introduce it into the basics of entrepreneurship right at the start of the course. There really isn’t a situation where IP is not a part of a business; it can be something as simple as establishing the brand of the company, or the copyrighted materials or images on a company’s website. Ideally it’s patents on the products, but it can even be trade secrets on how the company operates. Integrating IP education into an entrepreneurship curriculum is as easy as teaching finance, accounting, marketing, and other aspects of running a business.
You’ve been an advocate for independent inventors, when should they start thinking about IP as a means of protecting their innovations?
Having an awareness starts at the very beginning because everything you do can be impacted positively or adversely through your IP position. In many cases, it should be part of the evaluation process when you start your company. It’s hard to assess the risk and feasibility of a business if you’re not thinking about the intellectual property aspect of it as well.
I know you’ve talked about the legacy of innovation in the US. What do we need to do in the US to continue embracing innovation?
First and foremost, we have to respect it and make sure people understand how critical IP is as the incentive to innovate. The perception is that some people look at patents and IP as a tax, and that they pay more for a device, such as their iPhone, because that company has a patent. But the reality is that the product would have never been developed without the ability to protect it to begin with.
What do you see as some of the critical areas that entrepreneurs should focus on when looking to innovate? Do you see any gaps in the market that are ripe for innovation?
I always suggest people should look at what they interact with in their daily lives and question, is there a better way? We take for granted the way certain things are done because that’s the way it’s always been done. The idea we’d get into someone’s car and have them take us for a ride, or sleep in the bedroom of someone else’s house – at the time I doubt anyone thought it was a good idea, but now it’s second nature. And so especially for young people who are innovating, they approach life without the same biases adults have so they should look at the world and say, is there a better way of doing it? And that’s where we find patentable subject matter.
I think there are a lot of categories that are ripe for disruption, and healthcare is certainly one of those areas that continues to have great advancements.
Speaking of young people, what’s the story behind the Girl Scouts IP Patch?
So Dr. Michelson and I are board members of the Intellectual Property Owners Education Foundation, and our responsibility is to raise awareness of intellectual property. One of the initiatives we took on was the Girl Scouts. Having an innovation patch seemed like a modern approach to the Girl Scouts – we need to encourage kids and especially girls to be the next engineers and innovators. We initially partnered with the Girl Scouts in the Washington, DC area along with the US Patent Office to develop this curriculum. Now we offer the IP patch to all troops across the country.
Is there a particular skill set or personal profile that makes someone a great inventor?
I think inventors and innovators are people who question the status quo. They have a vision of how something can be done better. It may not be a game-changing tech or disrupting product, it may just be a better mousetrap. Inventors are able to take something and find a different way of doing it to make life easier.
I know it’s like picking a favorite child, but what would be the most important or beloved invention that you guided to commercialization?
Over the years we’ve developed an impressive portfolio of orthopedic products, especially knee braces. We worked with Dr. Bill Nordt who came to us with a problem – that his patients had overuse injuries. The products we developed together have become very successful in improving the lives of many injury sufferers. It’s much like Dr. Michelson’s own story of invention. It’s great when a product you’ve created makes money, but it’s even more rewarding when the products you’ve invented help humanity.
The Michelson Institute for Intellectual Property, an initiative of the Michelson 20MM Foundation, addresses critical gaps in intellectual property education to empower the next generation of inventors. Michelson 20MM was founded thanks to the generous support of renowned spinal surgeon Dr. Gary K. Michelson and his wife, Alya Michelson. To learn more, visit 20mm.org.