So we are a cash strapped startup with almost zero budget for a proper FTO. We have done a patent landscape analysis in order to get an idea of similar patents. To date, we can't find any similar patents in terms of method (to give some context from what we have seen in even the academic literature our method is almost completely novel/obscure and could open up a new field of research). We have decided to apply our technology to medical imaging, though the applications are far broader. We are in the process of writing up a provisional patent to get a filing date.
What we have found are many similar use cases with different methods. Typically these methods are deep learning/machine learning focussed. My question is, is it possible for these companies to claim under a doctrine of equivalents if we are addressing the same issue in a completely different way? Given we are using different methods, and software patents are typically for methods my intuition and my brain are telling me we are in a good position from an FTO perspective - however without any money to pay for an FTO we are concerned about the situation.
If there are any relatively inexpensive things we can do to de-risk things further then we could scrape together a small budget.
Answers much appreciated!
Edit: one more slightly related question. Could we opt to keep this as a trade secret and if that is the case, would we have to show any evidence that we do not use the same method?