UMass grad helps startups get patents with discount legal advice

Omer Dar and his team at SocialBox knew they had a great idea: a 21st Century photo booth that lets users edit pictures and take video, and also doubles as a corporate marketing tool. But Dar feared the young company couldn’t afford to protect its idea with a patent, until he discovered SmartUp, an online service that connects fledgling businesses to patent attorneys offering discounted legal advice.

“Finding out about this website basically saved us because it made [getting a patent] affordable,” said Dar, who co-founded SocialBox last year.

SmartUp is the brainchild of UMass Amherst grad Mikhail Avady, who said he observed a common problem among his entrepreneurial friends: They were either breaking the bank by patenting their innovations with the aid of high-priced intellectual property law firms or winding up with less-than-airtight protections after using do-it-yourself online guides.

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Avady designed SmartUp as middle ground. A step-by-step questionnaire helps an entrepreneur generate a draft patent application, then a real attorney offers advice, usually by phone or e-mail. For $350, a SmartUp-affiliated lawyer will make suggestions about how to improve an application. For $600, the lawyer will actually make revisions, and for $900 the attorney will write the entire application from start to finish.

Even at the highest level of service, that’s a steep discount. Avady said his research found legal fees of $2,500 to $5,000 to be commonplace.

Though Avady has moved to Atlanta and based his young company there, SmartUp is becoming a go-to partner for startup incubators in Massachusetts, where Avady grew up. The company signed an in-kind sponsorship agreement with MassChallenge in June and also is working with Bolt, Future Boston and Running Start.

“I went to every single accelerator and incubator I could in Boston—went to their events, spoke to their people to see if they would be interested in our service,” Avady said. “The response was amazing. They knew that their members had this need.”

For now, SmartUp has four attorneys on its roster: one in Boston, one in Silicon Valley and two in Atlanta. They are willing to accept reduced fees, Avady explained, because “this is a step to start building a relationship with clients that are probably going to get a lot bigger soon. You know, Google was a startup at one point.”

SocialBox, which participated in SmartUp’s pilot phase earlier this year, is growing and already is taking its business back to the Atlanta attorney who helped it receive a provisional patent.

“Now that we’re a bit bigger and have the funds, we’re going back for more legal work,” Dar said. “You go with who you trust.”