IP in Startups: Early-Stage Protection, Funding Strategies

This guide explores early-stage intellectual property protection strategies and funding options for startups, covering patents, trademarks, copyrights, trade secrets, and various financial resources to safeguard innovations and attract investors.


Intellectual Property (IP) is a critical asset for startups. It encompasses creations of the mind, such as inventions, literary and artistic works, designs, symbols, names, and images used in commerce. Protecting IP early can safeguard a startup's innovations, provide a competitive edge, and attract investors. This guide will explore early-stage IP protection strategies and funding options for startups.

Understanding Intellectual Property

Types of Intellectual Property


Patents protect inventions and grant the patent holder exclusive rights to use, sell, and license the invention for a certain period, typically 20 years from the filing date. There are three main types of patents:

  1. Utility Patents: Cover new and useful processes, machines, manufactures, or compositions of matter.
  2. Design Patents: Protect new, original, and ornamental designs for manufactured items.
  3. Plant Patents: Granted for new and distinct, invented, or discovered asexually reproduced plants.

For more information, visit the USPTO's patent page.


Trademarks protect symbols, names, and slogans used to identify goods or services. They help consumers distinguish between different brands and ensure that the brand's reputation is maintained. Trademarks can be renewed indefinitely as long as they are in use.

For more details, refer to the USPTO's trademark page.


Copyrights protect original works of authorship, such as literary, musical, and artistic works. The protection lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. Copyrights give the creator exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, and create derivative works.

For further information, visit the U.S. Copyright Office.

Trade Secrets

Trade secrets encompass confidential business information that provides a competitive edge. This includes formulas, practices, processes, designs, instruments, or compilations of information. Unlike other IP types, trade secrets are protected as long as they remain secret.

For more information, see the USPTO's trade secrets page.

Early-Stage IP Protection Strategies

Conducting an IP Audit

An IP audit involves identifying and evaluating all IP assets within a startup. This process helps in understanding what needs protection and how to prioritize resources. Key steps include:

  1. Inventory of IP Assets: List all potential IP assets, including inventions, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets.
  2. Assessment of IP Value: Evaluate the commercial value and strategic importance of each IP asset.
  3. Risk Analysis: Identify potential risks and vulnerabilities associated with each IP asset.

Filing for Patents

Provisional vs. Non-Provisional Patents

Startups can initially file a provisional patent application to secure a filing date and gain "patent pending" status. This is less costly and requires less detail than a non-provisional patent application. However, a non-provisional patent application must be filed within 12 months to benefit from the provisional filing date.

For more information on the patent application process, visit the USPTO's patent application page.

Trademark Registration

Registering a trademark provides nationwide protection and legal presumption of ownership. The process involves:

  1. Search for Existing Trademarks: Conduct a thorough search to ensure the trademark is unique.
  2. Filing an Application: Submit an application with the USPTO, including a description of the mark and the goods/services it will be used with.
  3. Examination and Publication: The USPTO examines the application and publishes it for opposition. If no opposition is filed, the trademark is registered.

For more details, refer to the USPTO's trademark registration page.

Protecting Trade Secrets

To protect trade secrets, startups should implement robust confidentiality measures, including:

  1. Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs): Require employees, contractors, and partners to sign NDAs to prevent unauthorized disclosure of trade secrets.
  2. Access Controls: Limit access to trade secrets to only those who need to know.
  3. Employee Training: Educate employees on the importance of trade secrets and the measures in place to protect them.

For more information, see the USPTO's trade secrets page.

While copyright protection is automatic upon creation, registering the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office provides additional legal benefits, including the ability to sue for infringement and statutory damages.

For more details, visit the U.S. Copyright Office's registration page.

Funding Strategies for IP Protection

Government Grants and Programs

Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Programs

The SBIR and STTR programs provide funding to small businesses for research and development with commercialization potential. These programs are highly competitive and encourage innovation by providing grants and contracts.

For more information, visit the SBIR website.

National Science Foundation (NSF) Grants

The NSF offers grants to support research and development in various fields. Startups can apply for funding through programs like the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR).

For more details, visit the NSF's funding page.

Advanced Industries Early-Stage Capital and Retention Grant

This grant program supports early-stage startups in advanced industries by providing funding for commercialization and retention efforts. It aims to accelerate the growth of innovative companies.

For more information, visit the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade.

Venture Capital and Angel Investors

Venture Capital

Venture capital (VC) firms provide funding to startups with high growth potential in exchange for equity. VCs not only offer financial support but also bring valuable expertise and networks. Key steps to secure VC funding include:

  1. Develop a Strong Business Plan: Clearly articulate the business model, market opportunity, and growth strategy.
  2. Prepare a Pitch Deck: Create a compelling presentation that highlights the startup's value proposition, team, and financial projections.
  3. Identify Potential Investors: Research and target VC firms that invest in the startup's industry and stage.

For more information, visit the National Venture Capital Association.

Angel Investors

Angel investors are high-net-worth individuals who provide capital to startups in exchange for equity or convertible debt. They often invest in early-stage companies and can offer mentorship and industry connections. To attract angel investors:

  1. Network and Build Relationships: Attend industry events, pitch competitions, and networking sessions to connect with potential investors.
  2. Show Traction and Potential: Demonstrate the startup's progress, market validation, and growth potential.
  3. Negotiate Terms: Clearly outline the investment terms, including equity stake, valuation, and investor rights.

For more details, refer to the Angel Capital Association.


Crowdfunding platforms allow startups to raise small amounts of money from a large number of people. This can be an effective way to validate the market and generate early traction. Popular crowdfunding platforms include:

  1. Kickstarter: Focuses on creative projects and offers rewards-based crowdfunding.
  2. Indiegogo: Supports a wide range of projects and offers both rewards-based and equity crowdfunding.
  3. SeedInvest: Specializes in equity crowdfunding, allowing investors to buy shares in startups.

For more information, visit the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission's crowdfunding page.

Government Loans and Tax Incentives

Small Business Administration (SBA) Loans

The SBA offers various loan programs to support small businesses, including startups. These loans can be used for working capital, equipment purchases, and other business needs. Key SBA loan programs include:

  1. 7(a) Loan Program: Provides general-purpose loans for various business needs.
  2. 504 Loan Program: Offers long-term, fixed-rate financing for major assets like real estate and equipment.
  3. Microloan Program: Provides small loans to startups and small businesses for working capital and inventory.

For more details, visit the SBA's loan programs page.

Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credits

The R&D tax credit incentivizes companies to invest in research and development by offering a tax credit for qualifying expenses. Startups can benefit from this credit by reducing their tax liability and freeing up resources for further innovation.

For more information, visit the IRS's R&D tax credit page.


Protecting intellectual property is crucial for startups to safeguard their innovations, maintain a competitive edge, and attract funding. By understanding the different types of IP and implementing early-stage protection strategies, startups can secure their valuable assets. Additionally, exploring various funding options, including government grants, venture capital, angel investors, crowdfunding, and government loans, can provide the necessary resources to support IP protection and business growth.

For further information and resources, startups can refer to the following official links:

  1. USPTO
  2. SBIR
  3. NSF
  4. SBA
  5. IRS

By leveraging these resources and strategies, startups can navigate the complexities of IP protection and funding, setting a strong foundation for future success.

About the author
Von Wooding, Esq.

Von Wooding, Esq.

Lawyer and Founder

Counsel Stack Learn

Free and helpful legal information

Find a Lawyer
Counsel Stack Learn

Great! You’ve successfully signed up.

Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.

You've successfully subscribed to Counsel Stack Learn.

Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.

Success! Your billing info has been updated.

Your billing was not updated.