My Background: I am 17 years old and I am currently about to end my junior year in high school. I'm pretty good with CS, having done a lot of projects over the past few years, some of which went to win awards at the state & university level.

I had a research idea to work on this summer in the field of EECS. I think if it works well it can also be monetized. I also want to apply for a research competition called Regeneron STS with this project, for which I need a mentor or someone who is familiar with my research. After an interview, I got an internship offer from a startup (currently 2 people working there) that does research in this area for me to work in their R&D department. Both of those people are professors with many years of experience in the field. However, their website is a little janky, I don't know much about either of them, and I don't really know if I should join as a research intern. It's difficult to say exactly why but I'm feeling a better vibe working on this by myself.

Another path I'm considering is trying to get a mentor (maybe a professor or someone who works in a different field in tech), submit the research to STS, and also try my hand at my own startup. I have a few other research ideas in the same field and I have a friend who would be a great business partner (he's also really good with CS).

Question(trying not to phrase as a "what to do?" question: Are there any advantages or traps of either option that I don't see? The internship is nice, plus it's paid, but then all the intellectual property that I develop would be ownership of the company and I don't know if I want that. On the other hand, the company would also offset the cost of materials, and offer help whenever necessary.

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    "but then all the intellectual property that I develop would be ownership of the company and I don't know if I want that." Wait for the contract first. See what it says. Just tell them that you want to enter a competition. They should have no problem with that. As to the Professors, having a mentor is a good idea. Most Professors have janky websites. As long as they're real Professors that's all that matters. May 16 at 6:50
  • Does the STS competition require that you work on a salable product, or just that you develop a research idea further? If it is the latter, you can also postpone the decision to market a product based on your idea yourself or to sell the idea. May 16 at 12:18
  • what is EECS ??
    – Fattie
    May 16 at 13:02
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    Realistically, if your invention is worth anything, in most cases you will still need to apply for some form of funding or grants to make it a commercial reality. To make that happen, the most realistic path IMO involves maximizing your education, and building your resume via internships. The competition is a great thing too. Read the fine print on who ends up with the intellectual property, if you have any big ambitions.
    – Pete W
    May 16 at 15:14
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    This is in no way meant to discourage you, but I'd say get through college first and make it a priority to get the most out of the unique opportunities you get at that stage of life. If you have a side project, great! Just my 2 cents is, be wary of doing it at the expense of educational and early-career-building opportunities -- at this stage. I do want to acknowledge that for a 100% software product, things can be different, but in many technology areas, you aren't really taken seriously without having gone not just university but grad school also.
    – Pete W
    May 16 at 20:54

There is more to founding a startup than being an inventor.

Founders have to be entrepreneurs, which as well as working on new ideas means raising money, learning about finance, learning about marketing, making a business plan, and eventually learning about recruitment, law, and everything else involved with running a company. If you want to do those things, then go the startup route.

If you don't then many people make careers of inventing and developing ideas within other structures, such as companies or universities. They get to focus on the actual development of ideas, without the other stuff. You won't get the credit or the riches if your idea really takes off, however you also won't go bankrupt if your idea tanks. (And ideas can tank for many reasons, most unrelated to how good the idea was.) You also won't get to control your idea, but you do get to have something like a life, time off and vacations.

Which one you pick depends on what you want.

Even if you decide you want to be a 'founder' then that doesn't mean you have to start off doing that. It may be a great idea to start working for someone else, learn about the research process and how you get an invention from idea to marketable product. Watch someone else do it, and make the mistakes when it's someone else's money on the line, so that when you do it for yourself you make fewer mistakes. You might want to spend some time in someone else's research lab before eventually starting your own.

  • I just finished reading the excellent book "Bad Blood" about Theranos. At their highest evaluation, they were worth $9 BILLION dollars, and the whole thing was a scam...
    – Nelson
    Jun 2 at 7:29

I'm not sure why no one mentioned applying to a patent. That would be the first thing I'd do if I had an original idea.

You'll protect your idea that way, and you'll have time to progress technically during your internships and jobs, then you can start working on your idea in your free time (with your own tools).

You can even make money from the patent itself. You'll earn royalty payments on products that have been sold using your technology, you can also sell licenses ...

The good thing about patents is that your idea doesn't need to work as described in the first place.

I don't know how much it costs where you live, but where I live, it's pretty affordable if you save up for it (like half of a month salary if you're paid minimum wage). And you have to pay a yearly fee to maintain the patent. Not sure if it's the same everywhere, but at least you should look into it. I'd rather pay to protect my idea and work on it on the weekends than give it for free to the company I'm working for.

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    Patents are a lot more expensive than that. You will need legal advice to file a useful one. May 17 at 14:12
  • Software patents are even more troublesome. You can protect the code with copyright, and protect a approach to a problem, but that problem can be solved in many ways. There is a reason Apple and Microsoft got into making hardware. You can easily patent the hardware, write software that by default is copyrighted, and your product is reasonably protected from being copied by the next person. You will have to defend those protections but you are reasonably protected
    – Donald
    May 18 at 12:18

If you can afford it, build a working product and then market the idea and see what turns up.

I went this route and it worked out more than once, but was a learning experience more than once as well. This is high risk for high returns, but it's not impossible.

If you're going to do this sort of thing, it's best done when you're younger without too many responsibilities making you focus on stability over risk.

  • can you elaborate a bit more on your experiences?
    – Jim Bob
    May 17 at 2:03
  • Why? It's simple enough, you either back yourself 100% or you don't. If you're not sure you can do it, don't. If you are sure, you can still fail but you'll learn a lot. Only thing is to know when to stop.
    – Kilisi
    May 17 at 2:08
  • The obvious and total downside is that you can't invent or own anything when you are working for someone else. (Even as an intern.)

Put simply,

  • No inventors-founders "work for someone else".

That's the end of the story.

If you truly think you're on to something, that shares an identity with saying "you'll do it yourself."

Each time I've had some idea or notion that ultimately led to a successful product I (obviously, how else could it be?) had to greullingly do it myself, sometimes even having to stay sober for months, until it paid. (Or flopped.) There is no easy out.

Some other points,

  • You mention having a mentor or guidance. Set the idea aside. Software at any level is the epitome of having to "figure it out all alone".

  • You mention that working for the guys (which, as mentioned, obviously ends any hope of your own product or work) will "save a few dollars on parts". Unfortunately: if you're trying to innovate some new idea, and you can't (somehow) come up with the few dollars for parts, unfortunately it's not going to work. Every founder has to either scrounge for money (from Uncles, Grandma, etc) or work often literally at Dunkin' Donuts for the needed bucks (which is actually a great thing: it gives you head clearing space).

Sorry for the "tough love" style answer. I can absolutely assure, if you go down the path of having your own product, a "tough love" answer like this will be the very least of the pain you'll experience.

Be aware that you absolutely (unfortunately) can't "have it both ways". My sensation from your answer is that you realize deep down that you just have to "suck it up and go for it", there are no crutches (such as the whacky idea of "a founder working for someone else"). Unfortunately that's correct. Walk to the corner, get that job at Dunkin', and get to it!

If you do decide to instead take the job, and put off your own Founding Experience for six months, do it with eyes wide open and realize that is what you are doing. (And of course, you'll be screwed forever if there is any major IP involved, no matter what any contracts say.)

(BTW you mention "I have a friend who would be a great business partner". Take great care with this. It's often better to just do it yourself. Many seasoned business people simply feel "never take a partner". It can work, it is often a complete time-waste and muddle.)

Per Shakespeare, take it on the flood,

“There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.”

enter image description here

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    Founders don't work for anyone else by definition (unless you count investors, and you really should), but there are plenty of inventors working for R&D departments.
    – ojs
    May 16 at 13:49
  • @ojs for sure - I pretty obviously meant inventors in the sense of "invention-owning inventors, entrepreneurs, founders". You're 100% right, for many a great course of action is to be "an inventor at" a big inventive company like say GE or whatever. (Jack Welch calls them "intra-preneurs" which is really clever.) You'll be very well-rewarded, and everything like "buying a fax machine" is taken care of for you. {Of course here "well rewarded" means two orders of magnitude away from being an "invention-owning inventor, founder".}
    – Fattie
    May 16 at 13:56
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    A lot of inventors work for someone else. What you do find is that a lot of owners call inventions created by their employees "theirs". May 16 at 16:51
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    Thanks for the answer. "My sensation from your answer is that you realize deep down that you just have to 'suck it up and go for it', there are no crutches (such as the whacky idea of "a founder working for someone else". This really nailed what I was feeling. As for the money for the parts, I won a few hundred dollars from some competitions and I think my parents would be willing to pay the difference so that's not a problem. I will be moving forward with working on this myself.
    – Jim Bob
    May 16 at 17:45
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    @Fattie if someone has to ask this question, it should be obvious that they're not going to make it on their own. As for getting help from investors, co-founders, talent competition organizers, etc... TANSTAAFL
    – ojs
    May 16 at 18:27

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