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USPTO Leaders on Inclusive Innovation as A Driver Of Economic Growth

Post Time:2023-06-21 Source:forbes.com Author:Heather Wishart-Smith Views:

“Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

This quotation has long been attributed to Charles Holland Duell, Commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office from 1898 to 1901. Yet despite this attribution having been disproven by Samuel Sass, the myth lives on. What Duell actually said in 1902 has quite a different meaning:

“In my opinion, all previous advances in the various lines of invention will appear totally insignificant when compared with those which the present century will witness. I almost wish that I might live my life over again to see the wonders which are at the threshold.” Charles Holland Duell

Wonders indeed. The number of patent filings began with three in 1790, when the first U.S. patents were filed, grew to 65 when the U.S. Patent Office was established in 1836, became 48,320 in 1902 when Duell made his statement, and reached a record high of 621,453 in 2019. These patent filings reflect the American ingenuity that is a driver of economic growth.

Renamed the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 1975, the USPTO is focused on expanding that ingenuity and growth with its 2022 – 2026 Strategic Plan, which focuses on driving innovation, entrepreneurship, job creation, and enhanced global competitiveness and national security. Kathi Vidal, Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the USPTO, has said, “if we can expand the number of inventors by four-fold, we can grow our economy and GDP by $1 trillion.”

Together with newly placed Commissioner of Patents Vaishali Udupa, Vidal is focusing the USPTO on driving economic growth through inclusive innovation, the first of five goals of the strategic plan. Vidal views inclusive innovation as the base on which to build the innovation ecosystem. “To accomplish all we’re trying to accomplish, we need to make sure that base is strong and that we don’t leave anybody on the bench when it comes to the innovation ecosystem,” Vidal said. “We have found that by expanding pro bono innovation assistance across the country and meeting people where they are, the percentage of women inventors jumps from 12% to 43% of those participating, Black inventors increases to 35%, Hispanics 14%. If we want to grow our economy and create big and better jobs, the key is to make sure we’re getting out there and bringing everybody into the innovation ecosystem from the beginning.”

For Udupa, inclusive innovation means making it accessible to everyone. “When we think about underrepresented minorities, we often think about women and ethnic minorities. For me, coming from a small rural town in southwest Virginia and the Appalachian Mountains, it includes tapping into every nook and cranny of the U.S. to help people everywhere be part of the innovation mindset, and getting the message across that everyone can be part of the innovation ecosystem.”

Under Vidal’s direction, the USPTO has expanded innovation and entrepreneurship programs targeted to veterans, Blacks, Hispanics, Native American artists and craftspeople, and other diverse groups. The Women Entrepreneurs Initiative supports female entrepreneurs to support equity, job creation, and economic prosperity.

Vidal and Udupa’s motivation to meet prospective inventors “where they are” is evident in several experiences. “Every time I get out in communities, I see youth, military, women, diverse people inventing,” Vidal said. She recently visited a high school in Pomona, California where students had developed a tool to put on an individual’s foot to detect issues with diabetes

“It goes to show that when we get outside of the traditional inventor, people are very empathetic to various issues and they’re inventing in those spaces,” Vidal said. “There would be a lot more inventing if we can get people off the bench who have particular solutions to problems that not everybody sees, but that relate to people like themselves.” Udupa adds, “for example, when I was younger and would get a cut, the bandages available at the time weren’t my skin color and would show so glaringly. But now there are bandages in different skin colors. It’s these types of little, empathetic thoughts when you get people who have different experiences, different viewpoints, who can provide ideas that others might not have thought about.”

Udupa shares a similar example of Kavya Kopparapu, who at 17 years old invented Eyeagnosis, which uses artificial intelligence and smartphone technology to identify symptoms of diabetic retinopathy, which can result in blindness. Kopparapu was inspired by her grandfather, who lives in a remote village in India with limited access to ophthalmologists and expensive retinal imagery machines. Eyeagnosis removes the barriers to critical care for those with limited access to doctors and treatment centers. “Kavya says she continuously see how people are building off the work she has done, which I think demonstrates how our IP system enables people to see innovation and build off of that. Continuous innovation improvement is so essential for national security, helping our economy, and solving the problems of the world,” Udupa said.

Part of meeting prospective innovators where they are relates to how they meet them. Researchers have found that girls tend to get more excited about innovation when there is a story around it. Udupa remarked, “we’re finding that when STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] kits and innovation exercises have a story around them, girls can get invested and will enjoy it a lot more. So having that understanding is so important in how we make sure we get more diverse inventors, and more diverse inventions.”

Vidal emphasizes the importance of protecting intellectual property. “IP is essential to bringing any idea to impact. All the great innovations Americans come up with, if we don’t protect the intellectual property, especially patents, it makes it very difficult to collaborate because you want to hold your ideas tight and you don’t want to share them.” Vidal adds that intellectual property protection is also critical for funding. “If somebody is going to invest in you, they want to make sure that a competitor is not going to be able to take your idea and launch it more successfully,” she said.

As an example, the covid vaccines were built on mRNA intellectual property that had been patented years before. “Had there not been patents available to the companies innovating in that space, we never would have seen companies collaborating so much because they were able to contribute, but know what each company contributed,” Vidal said. “Collaboration was possible because of the protection of that IP, which resulted in U.S. jobs and solving major world problems.”

“Robust and reliable IP rights help people know the scope of their IP and have the confidence to collaborate,” according to Udupa. “Within the USPTO, we look at what we can do within our system to make sure we’re the stewards of getting innovation to reality.”

Vidal emphasizes the importance of intellectual property to U.S. prosperity. “Intellectual property-intensive industries like manufacturing, information technology, education, and healthcare services accounted for 41% or $7.8 trillion in gross domestic product in 2019, and 44% of U.S. employment, or 63 million jobs,” she said. “Those in IP-intensive industries earn higher wages, have better health insurance, and they have better retirement plans. So, the more we invest in innovation and IP-intensive industries, the more we’re going to lift Americans across the country.”

In response to the position that intellectual property protection stifles competition and results in higher prices, Vidal responds, “that focuses on the intellectual property and innovation ecosystem in a static way. If you devalue IP, it will result in lower prices and more competition in the short term. But this narrative ignores the dynamic aspect of intellectual property. While it is true that if we were to devalue intellectual property today and take away everybody's patents there would be more competition and prices would be lowered, but it would be at the cost of us never inventing the next COVID vaccine. Of us never inventing the next innovation. To promote innovation and solve world problems, we need to ensure that patents are strong, and that people can rely on intellectual property protection when they invest in companies.”

Vidal recognizes the challenges faced by areas of innovation that are not currently covered by U.S. patents, most notably, diagnostic methods. One example is the innovation surrounding continuous innovation of covid vaccines compared with at-home tests. “Under the current law it is not clear that you can patent at-home covid tests,” Vidal said. “And so there’s no investment in them, no incentive for innovation, and they haven’t evolved since the beginning of the pandemic. Addressing areas of innovation not currently covered by U.S. patents is critical when it comes to the needs of the IP system.”

Interestingly, when Udupa first interviewed to become a patent examiner when graduating from the University of Virginia’s engineering school, she and the interviewer came to the uncomfortable realization that she was ineligible for employment at USPTO, as she had been born in Canada and U.S. citizenship is required. She tried to interview again once she became a citizen, yet USPTO had a hiring freeze at the time. Following a 20-year career practicing IP law, including at Hewlett Packard, Udupa persisted and entered the USPTO not as a patent examiner straight out of college, but as Commissioner of Patents.

Vidal also has a technical background. After working as an electrical engineer focused on artificial intelligence and design at General Electric and Lockheed Martin, Vidal headed to law school and what became a 25-year career in litigation and patent law.

Vidal’s advice for aspiring innovators and entrepreneurs? “Find your own voice and be authentic. Once we each find our authentic selves, it’s incumbent upon all of us to latch onto it, not just for ourselves, but for future generations. Because when they see us as ourselves, the more they’ll see space for themselves, the more they can find different models to emulate that are true to who they really are,” she said. The result may well be the innovation, entrepreneurship, job creation, and enhanced global competitiveness and national security envisioned under the USPTO 2022 – 2026 Strategic Plan.