Venture Cafe Interview (text)

Interview on November 18, 2010 by Matthew Glidden (The Venture Café)

Spencer Irvine, CEO, AIRVENTIONS, INC. discusses startups and patents.

Venture Café: “Many engineering companies use patents as a yardstick, given the business potential of a good idea for both startups and conglomerates. Approved and enforceable patents provide a technological head-start and (ideally) generate license fees or revenues, but what makes it ‘good’ in the first place? We talked with Spencer Irvine about his own startup AirVentions, Inc. and personal experience filing patents.”

VC: What are some of the things you are working on?
Spencer Irvine: I graduated from MIT Sloan Class of 2010. I am working on a company called AirVentions, Inc. which focuses on the ground support vehicles at airports such as the baggage loaders, catering trucks, cargo loaders that drive around the airport and service aircraft. Much too often people driving around accidentally hit the planes and cause damage on the ramps. This can take a plane out of service which cost a lot of money to airlines. We put a collision avoidance system on those vehicles to alert, send a warning to the drivers and even physically stop the vehicle from hitting the plane.

VC: You came into this from personal experience?
Spencer Irvine: In 2003 I started a part-time job on the ramps in Atlanta while attending Georgia Tech. I came up with the idea around 2004 while going through additional training and experiencing what really goes on out there on the ramps at airports. I would often think to myself that there has got to be a way to fix this. That’s how I came up with the idea for the system.

VC: The problems that you are trying to solve are different because the vehicles are different than are normally protected from collision?
Spencer Irvine: Yes, we are dealing with vehicles which have moving conveyor belt arms that reach up to airplane doors, airplane wings or airplane engines which is at a completely different elevation. The thing with cars which is nice is that they are pretty much at the same height and shoots directly in, a 90 degree surface to a 90 degree surface. Whereas with mine, there are all different kinds of angles and different ways to approach. So, it raises a lot of different design issues.

VC: Was this something that you bought to MIT Sloan and honed the business that way?
Spencer Irvine: I started working on this when I was in grad school at Georgia Tech. I reached out to a lot of the professors there. The great thing is there is a huge network between Georgia Tech and MIT and a lot of people know each other. I am actually working with someone there who is a friend of a Sloan classmate.


VC: When we briefly spoke before you said you went through a couple of rounds of submitting patent ideas and getting approval, and then refining it again later. What does that involve and how do you move toward something more specific?
Spencer Irvine: I had the idea and drew out my sketches, wrote out conceptually what it should do; found some of the technologies that would need to be incorporated into it. So I had that description of the technologies and how they would fit together and had that system sketched out. From there it was a matter of going onto the patent website,, and some other ones, there’s a bunch online you can search like .

You need to figure out how you are going to search and what patents might be related to yours. The idea is that you want to do as much work on your own before you hire somebody to search. You don’t want it to turn out that it was something you could have easily found out in a half day or day search and you ended up paying somebody $2000 for something you could have found on your own.

So first, you have to dedicate some time to see if there is anything out there like what you have. If you think what you have is patentable, new idea, novel, useful, non-obvious, then what I did was find a patent attorney in Atlanta and they did a search and confirmed what I had done. From there I worked with them to figure out the application. I worked on the technical drawings and technical descriptions. They did a lot of the legal jargon that now I am more familiar with.

Given that experience when I file additional patents, my packet will be more complete when I hand it off to the lawyers. It is the way they phrase things in terms of claims. I am more familiar with that now. You try to cast your net (claims) really wide with the understanding that you probably are going to be rejected and that is fine. When the response came back two years later they said ‘it was rejected and here are the reasons why it was rejected.’ So now that you know why it was rejected you know how narrow to focus. Typically, it is not very good to be too narrow going in.

VC: The rejection notice also has comments?
Spencer Irvine: Yes, for example, “…this claim that you made is similar to prior art, this claim you made is obvious…” So you have sent in 40 claims and they rejected 10 of them. They may say it is not patentable because we rejected 10 of your 40 claims and here are the reasons why. You can either: 1) protest and suggest they were wrong about the claim, 2) modify the claim or 3) just leave the claim out if you really don’t need it. We did a combination of those three.

VC: Was the resubmission of your original idea accepted?
Spencer Irvine: Yes, it was approved about a year later with the revised claims.

VC: I could see this really being an issue for startup companies where you need to get it turned around as quickly as possible. If you only have enough money for one year I guess you can’t lean on them?
Spencer Irvine: Oh, it’s not getting approved that quickly. You are dealing with a government process. What a lot of companies will do, and I am exploring this as well, is filing a provisional which essentially says ‘here is something I am working on so save this date and I will get back to you in a year. That is when the real application goes through. I just want the patent office to know that I am working on something else right now.

VC: Celebration after 2nd submission approved?
Spencer Irvine: I hadn’t officially started the company at that point so I was happy with my patent. But, one patent doesn’t really mean all that much. So you quickly realize here are all your next options, and by the way, this is what it is going to cost. So now you have to think about international filings and modifications to the patent to cover more vehicles and other applications.

VC: Things you might do differently regarding patent process/suggestions for others?
Spencer Irvine: Get as much information as possible on the process. Review some patents that may be similar to yours to see how they are crafted and what type of language is used. When you do your description make it as close to theirs as possible. The goal here is to have as little work for the lawyers as possible. The more work they have the more you are going to get charged. Also, understand what your costs will be regarding all the filings.

VC: Minimum budget estimates for filings?
Spencer Irvine: Minimum I would say is $10,000 – $15,000 area. With foreign filings you need to think long and hard as to which countries make sense. They could be $4,000 each and that could get really expensive.

VC: Are the economic zones like the EU or Asian shared economic zones single filings or individual for each country?
Spencer Irvine: There is the EU one but the Asian countries are still separate I think.

VC: Is bulk of patent filing behind you and you can now focus on the technical and business development?
Spencer Irvine: It is kind of in parallel. We are making a lot of progress in the new system and developing prototypes. Along with doing that there are going to be some things added to the IP addressing additional areas we would like to cover. I am drafting up a broad spectrum of that right now, but there are always revisions.

VC: More confident next time going in given your experience?
Spencer Irvine: It definitely helps you out. Also use any legal resource or free advice that you can. I have gone to some MIT Enterprise forum events. There are a lot of people that want to help out with IP. I have talked to some. The others I will see how much they are willing to help out before asking for money.


For more information about AirVentions, Inc. visit the official website

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