An illusionist is someone who can make you believe you're seeing something that you know is impossible. In this particular project Jane was an accidental illusionist.
Jane came up with an incredibly simple and elegant solution to an office organization problem that is annoying to a meaningful number of folks. When Jane showed it to us (and to anyone really), the reaction is one of a slow smile that creeps onto your face along with an exclamation of "that is really neat! But I can't believe it hasn't been done before." It was an elegant solution, and if it truly hadn't been done before, could shake up a sleepy category and be a pretty fun innovation.
Jane had spent hundreds of hours perfecting her prototypes, had worked with a lawyer on both a prior art search, and on a patent application. She'd done Google searches and insisted no one had done this before. She was passionate about her invention, and had developed line extensions and a whole suite of products that leveraged her original insight. We were sufficiently intrigued that we signed Jane up after we cracked the code on positioning and hit our hurdle on the concept screen.
Luckily, in our process we're now prepared for illusions (partially as a result of prior failures like Exit Stage Right and Case of Missing IP) and we now take steps to shine very bright lights onto high-risk aspects of a project. Our first action upon signing Jane was to do a really good prior art search with our best legal team; they're not the cheapest, but they are the best. We initiated it within 24 hours of getting Jane's signed documents.
Result: Very similar products have been developed and patented in Europe and Asia, just not in the US. So Jane's patent was never going to issue (or be enforceable), and we'd never have anything we can license. This project holds the record for our fastest project termination (9 days from signing to termination).
Re-learned lesson: Shine bright lights on critical assumptions, get great people to peer review prior work and conclusions. Particularly when your gut is telling you what you're seeing isn't what you're seeing. Was it a failure? It was, but we're getting better and better at failing fast and cheap -- and most importantly we're learning from prior mistakes...