Back to Blog
Intellectual Property

Guide to Intellectual Property: What is a Prototype?

Experimentation is key to invention. Innovators must test their ideas, persist through failures and modify their designs before they can bring any successful invention to market. One of the most valuable tools in this development process is a prototype.

As we continue our “Guide to Intellectual Property” blog series, let’s answer a few basic questions about prototypes — models that can help inventors to demonstrate and test their ideas.


What is the difference between a prototype and a proof of concept?

Though you might sometimes hear these terms used as though they are interchangeable, a prototype and a proof of concept (POC) are not the same thing.

The primary goal of a POC is to prove a basic idea or feature of an invention. A POC can be done before a prototype is created because the POC is not used to tell the inventor how to build a feature of the invention; it tells the inventor if it is possible to build that feature.

A prototype, on the other hand, allows an inventor to test all aspects of their invention, to see how their product might function, and to identify and solve any potential problems.


What can be used to build a prototype?

You might be surprised to learn that the initial development of an invention does not necessarily require expensive materials. In fact, you might have everything needed for the next great invention in your own home right now. Through upcycling, everyday household items from cardboard and rubber bands to the components of broken appliances can be turned into a prototype.

For an example of upcycling to create an effective prototype, just look to one of our past Collegiate Inventors Competition® Finalist teams, NeoVent. On its path to developing a lifesaving infant respirator, this team of innovators used a yogurt container and duct tape to build a model of their invention. An early prototype like this does not need to be complicated — it simply brings initial sketches to life and allows inventors to manipulate their ideas in three-dimensional form.

National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Steve Sasson, inventor of the digital camera, explains, “As prototypes unfold, they allow you to work on things, they allow you to make changes — prototypes don’t often work, they break, they change, you have new ideas. You have to manipulate them a lot. Your prototype has to be flexible.” 

Curricula for NIHF’s education programs, directly influenced by NIHF Inductees like Sasson, prioritize prototyping through upcycling. Participants in the Camp Invention® program, for instance, bring upcyclable materials with them to camp, and they use these materials throughout the program week to bring their big ideas to life.

As the invention process unfolds, prototypes can become more detailed and technologically complex, and can more closely resemble the intended finished product, but it all starts with a few simple materials combined with ambition and imagination.


What is rapid prototyping?

Rapid prototyping is the term used for techniques that quickly turn invention designs into 3D objects.

Often, rapid prototyping refers to processes involving advanced technology including CAD (computer-aided design) data and 3D printers. However, while computer technology certainly allows inventors to move through the prototyping process at a much faster rate than ever before, innovators without access to such technology can still apply the principles of rapid prototyping to their work.

From quickly sketching ideas and clarifying goals to testing and refining ideas without letting failures stop the process from moving ahead, prototyping can be a swift and fruitful process regardless of the technology involved.

Looking for more blogs related to intellectual property (IP)? Check out the other topics in our “Guide to Intellectual Property” series to learn more about IP elements from copyrights and trademarks to patents and trade secrets, and look for the next blog in this series to cover brands

Related Articles