Say you have an idea for which you can appreciate some intellectual and financial support. For this you may reach out to different sources, such as university professors or research institutes that also have experience in building start-ups.

For example, it can start with an email, in which the idea is not fully presented, but later you would be asked about it and may be completely open about what your idea is. However, how can we protect or make sure that the other person wont share that idea with someone else or steal it?

Certainly, in the beginning there is no patent that clarifies the ownership of that idea to be yours and patents are expensive as well to file individually. Or are there other ways to already associate the idea with your name and be sure it cannot be easily stolen?

----edit: The question also considers scenarios where signing an NDA is not really realistic. For example for students reaching out to professors or other institutes and having barely any idea how others may take advantage of their ideas.

  • @Sneftel Here the focus is mainly about investors rather than Professors
    – Alejandro
    Jan 15, 2023 at 15:24
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    @Sneftel well you're right, the answers there do apply here also. but the thing is the answer suggest writing an NDA. I can't really ask a professor to sign an NDA for a simple discussion. At least in Germany, they're like God, quite hard to meet. Plus it is not hard for anyone to get around and NDA sometimes. I just think there might be a more realistic way to do it. (like maybe research paper publication? or getting fund only for patent before more discussion with funders or Professors)
    – Alejandro
    Jan 15, 2023 at 16:17
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    While closely related, I do not think the linked question is a duplicate. The relation between an investor and an inventor is significantly different from that between a student and a prof, and the feasible solutions are also different. Jan 15, 2023 at 16:49
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    @MichaelSeifert I added a clarification about it in the edit.
    – Alejandro
    Jan 15, 2023 at 17:01
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    Since the OP rejects the legal solution of requiring an NDA given the deity status of professors in Germany, the only alternative is a non-legal social solution – how can you politely shame the professor into whatever it is that you think they should do. That question would be appropriate for Academia SE
    – user6726
    Jan 15, 2023 at 17:56

1 Answer 1


I'm in , like OP.

  • I can say from experience that also in public research, NDAs are very common, so professors are quite used to signing them. E.g., we've had NDAs (on top of everything specified in the cooperation contracts) before project meetings where a partner presented something that might be relevant for a patent later on.

  • Services like start-up or inventor consultations (Gründerberatung, Erfindersprechstunde) offered by universities or chambers of commerce typically already state on their own (e.g. on the web site) that they treat everything in the consultation as confidential. For them, that's nothing more nor less than being professional.
    Also, their business is to offer consulting, they are not interested in starting business themselves. They are paid for and their success is measured by how many others they help to start a business.

  • When approaching a professor, you can say you want to consult with them, and need them to treat the discussion as confidential.
    If you do not trust them to keep things confidential as they promised, then don't approach that professor: that's a sign that they are not the right business partner/consultant for you. It doesn't even matter whether your assessment of them is correct or paranoid - without that level of trust, you'd have to waste much time and effort on making things legally watertight which could otherwise go into your business. That would be economically stifling.

    Sure, there may exist professors who'd want to take over the idea. However, normally someone becomes a professor in order to be a professor. And for a professor, having a student successfully start a spin-off does substantially count towards their success in evaluations.

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