You might be seeing dollar signs as you envision your invention heading to market. What you likely aren't thinking is just how costly the process can be.

Most inventors underestimate the costs in taking an invention to market, say the experts. Just the patent application process alone can cost as much as $15,000 in attorney's fees, says Ryan N. Carter, an Iowa patent attorney who writes and speaks about intellectual property issues. Patent applications involving software, chemicals or pharmaceuticals can reach $20,000 in legal fees.

Savvy inventors know there are a number of resources available that can trim the costs of bringing an invention to fruition, whether it's in the patent process, in conducting feasibility studies or in educating yourself about the process. Here's where you can find help:

Government Entities
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office offers online access to patent files. Your search won't replace an extensive search by an intellectual properties attorney, says Carter. But it's a smart way to cut costs. "Lots of people have patented things they've never marketed. Just because you don't see something on store shelves doesn't mean there's not a patent. You can do a quick search of the files and find the exact thing you were developing,'' Carter says. If you search, you can print out patents similar to your idea and bring those to the attention of the attorney. "Doing a quick search is a good place to start,'' he says. "It can cut down on running around and legal fees later." The Patent and Trademark Office also offers basic tips for first-time inventors.

The U.S. Small Business Administration offers a free online tool that helps assess whether you're ready to start a business, useful for inventors who plan to market their invention themselves. Also on the web site are tutorials related to running a small business.

Professional Organizations
It's sometimes possible to find assistance through a local bar association, says New York City patent attorney Ian R. Blum. For instance, the Association of the Bar of New York City offers the Neighborhood Entrepreneur Law Project, which provides pro bono legal counsel for low-income, micro-entrepreneurs in New York City.

Colleges and Universities
Most business schools run classes where students are required to analyze the marketability of new products, points out Carter. "You can find grad students who will do an analysis for free,'' Carter says. Partnerships between local small businesses and academia are quite common these days. Programs can range from one-time seminars, where entrepreneurs receive quick help and advice, to extensive ongoing support that includes the marketing analysis, web site development and even advertising design. At the University of Puget Sound in Washington state, you might even find help creating a prototype.

It's worth checking with local colleges and universities to ask about programs; entrepreneurial centers and classes have exploded in popularity in the last decade. You'll want to ask whether the students sign non-disclosure agreements to protect your intellectual property. Although the help may be free or low-cost, you may need to adjust your time frame to an academic timetable or you may need to agree to meet on a regular basis with student teams.

And in some cases, it might be worth enrolling in class yourself. A number of universities offer assistance, sometimes financial, for student entrepreneurs developing inventions and ideas.

Non-profit Organizations
For a nominal fee, you can access a United Inventors Association video series on bringing your invention to market. Join for $99 a year, and you can view the videos as an independent inventor planning to license your invention. If you're the entrepreneurial type who plans to bring your invention to market yourself, you pay $199 a year and view additional videos. The group also offers "Ask a Pro" message boards.

Also, quite frequently local inventors' associations, such as the Texas Inventors' Association, can serve as an invaluable resource. Talking to inventors who have already gone through the process can help prevent costly mistakes, saving you time and money. It's also a way to establish contacts with patent attorneys and licensing experts.