Three years ago, as a University of Western Ontario freshman, Anne Swift, pictured at left, came up with an idea for a flexible computer keyboard. Frustrated by the lack of patent guidance for young inventors, she organized a network of like-minded collegians to help her figure out how to proceed. By the time she'd gathered her information, someone else had come up with a similar idea and landed the patent she coveted. Instead of a patent, Swift wound up with a flourishing network.

Young Inventors International, a nonprofit organization, is headquartered in Swift's home in King City, Ont., Canada, an hour north of Toronto. It helps folks under age 35 develop, patent, and market innovative ideas. The first and most expansive group of its kind, Young Inventors now boasts an array of workshops, newsletters, networking events, mentoring programs, an annual conference, and a fundraiser. It has 500 members in more than 20 countries and a division, Young at Heart, for professionals over 35, who serve as mentors.

The organization runs social and professional events around North America and is planning to host monthly social events in major North American cities in the next two years. Most of the Toronto chapter's monthly meetings run the gamut of patent-related topics, although Young Inventors also hosts workshops on related patent and entrepreneurial issues, like marketing.

"We start from the very beginning of an idea, or even before an idea is born," says Swift, who is now 23 and completing her senior year as an economics and political science major at the University of Toronto, where she transferred last year. "We work with inventors one-on-one and also offer group workshops that assist with brainstorming, market analysis, technical viability, patent applications and alternatives, intellectual property and nondisclosure agreements, and getting your product into the marketplace."

Selling an idea also involves developing a business around it or licensing it. "That's why we move beyond just patenting," she adds.

Another part of the group's mission is changing the antiquated notion of the inventor as Edison look-alike.

"The biggest issue young inventors face is credibility," says Swift, a pretty blonde who's been featured in the women's magazine Glamour. "Companies look for inventors with Ph.D.s, so they tend to look at teen and college student inventors and say, 'But how can you...?' We want to show that inventors can be young, dynamic individuals who can function in the real world."

The Young Inventors headquarters?a colorful room overflowing with files and books and overlooking a garden "for inspiration," as Swift notes?acts as a resource hub for local chapters in other cities and countries, which operate their own events. For example, a group of young entrepreneurs in Ghana contacted Young Inventors for ideas when it wanted to expand its club to accommodate inventors.

Swift spends about 20 hours a week on Young Inventors, mostly fundraising, but she declines to cite her annual budget. The organization survives on dues ($10 for Young Inventors and $40 for Young at Heart members); advertising in its quarterly publication, The IP (for "intellectual progress"); grants and donations from Magna International, University of Toronto, Pratt & Whitney, DuPont, and the Canadian government; and corporate sponsorships in exchange for marketing on the group's Web site.

Swift's talents as an entrepreneur and inventor came naturally. Her father was trained as a civil and environmental engineer and now is manager of a computer engineering firm. Her mother was an economics and political science professor who ran several consulting businesses while raising Anne and her two brothers, Michael, 15, and Victor, 13. Since her junior year in high school, Swift has run several small businesses, ranging from tutoring to database creation to communications.

Young Inventors began as monthly brainstorming meetings with a group of University of Western Ontario students, which pulled in professionals and doctoral students who could help coordinate resources and organize workshops. It formed the Youth Advisory Board, while Swift, after transferring, tapped University of Toronto science professors and promoted the group on that campus and at engineering conferences. Swift set up a Web site early on, which brought international attention.

With the Young Inventors gaining momentum only in the last year and the average patent process taking at least two years, no one in the organization has secured a patent?yet. But they have managed to connect some members with corporate sponsors.

"We hooked up a girl who invented a car safety device with a potential partner and some software inventors with biotech firms," says Swift. "We have students finishing up their Ph.D.s who want to launch and build businesses around their ideas. Those range from games and toys to medical devices."

That "girl," Gabriella Etcheverry, a 23-year-old aerospace engineering major at Ryerson University, in Toronto, became involved with Young Inventors when her "squash ball" energy-absorbing mechanism won an honorable mention in a competition at the group's first "Inventing the Future Conference" last August. The squash ball, a spherical shell of polystyrene, rubber, and aluminum, minimizes collision damage by deforming when hit by an external force and then pushing outward as soon as the external force is removed.

Young Inventors put her in touch with Garth Phillips, who runs BrändCom a consulting firm near Toronto. He is helping Etcheverry package her product presentation, providing access to companies that can develop and test prototypes and sell her design to the auto industry.

"Anne's been really adamant about getting the product out there," says Etcheverry, who now holds a provisional patent, essentially a place holder that gives her a year to file for a full patent. "I have a car bumper company looking at it now."

When Swift graduates in May, she plans to take a year or two off to focus on expanding Young Inventors, before going to law school or graduate school for economics with an eye toward working in intellectual property. In her precious spare time, she is putting together a patent application for a computer hardware device, the details of which she declines to divulge for fear that someone might steal her idea, and she keeps a notebook of potential ideas to patent one day. This time around she knows where to go for help.

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist (skarlin@aol.com) based in Los Angeles who has written for The New York Times, Forbes, Newsweek, and Discover.

Editor's note: Reprinted with permission from IEEE Spectrum Careers, the career development Web site of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' (IEEE's) Spectrum magazine and available online.