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Accelerating the Patent Process

New U.S. patent offices create hubs of innovation and economic activity

John K. Borchardt

Dr. Borchardt is a consultant and technical writer. The author of the book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers,” he writes often on career-related subjects.

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accelerating the patent processPatents are the fuel for American innovation,” said Acting U.S. Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank. The overhaul of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) mandated by the September 2011 passage of the America Invents Act is aimed at promoting innovation. One statute of the 2011 America Invents Act requires the establishment of at least four satellite offices around the country in addition to the main facility in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. The first opened in July 2012. “By opening the doors to America’s first-ever satellite patent office in Detroit, we are going to put more patents in the hands of entrepreneurs throughout this region and across the country,” stated Blank. 

Two more satellite offices will open in 2013, and there will be additional offices later, in or around Dallas, Texas; Denver, Colorado; and Silicon Valley, California. By having satellite regional offices in multiple states, the USPTO may receive broader congressional funding support. Competition for the additional satellite offices was heavy, with more than 600 communities submitting applications. 

The objective of the satellite offices is to promote the formation of hubs of innovation and creativity, helping protect and foster American innovation in the global marketplace, helping businesses cut through red tape, and creating hundreds of highly skilled jobs in each of the local communities. 

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Why is this important to lab managers? 

Creating satellite offices is part of a broad effort to speed up the nearly three-year-long patent application process, which encourages face-to-face meetings between inventors and USPTO patent examiners. Currently the USPTO has a backlog of more than 700,000 patent applications. Face-to-face meetings between patent examiners and patent agents are a key way to clarify and resolve differences of opinion concerning patent applications. This resolution can greatly reduce the time required for patent issuance. Regional patent offices could also reduce the inconvenience and travel cost of these meetings, which is particularly important for small firms and independent inventors with limited financial and time resources. 

According to David Kappos, the undersecretary of commerce for intellectual property and director of the USPTO, an additional advantage is that the satellite offices will facilitate hiring and retaining patent professionals. Thus the satellite offices should result in an increased number of patent examiners. This will also enable more timely review and issuance of patent applications. The satellite offices may also decrease the high turnover rate among patent examiners by offering alternatives to living in the high-cost greater Washington, D.C., area. Reduced turnover means patent applicants will be working with more experienced, more efficient patent examiners. This, in turn, should make faster patent application examination possible, accelerating the patent issuance process. 

Why does speeding up the patent application review and approval process matter? Owning a patent is often an important step in commercializing a newly invented product or process. Accelerating the patent application process will enable laboratories to bring their products to market sooner. 

Not all the patent professionals will continue working for the USPTO satellite offices forever. As time passes, some will probably leave to work in the private sector. Laboratory managers will find it more convenient and probably easier to recruit these professionals to work in various intellectual property positions. Today such USPTO professionals usually have to undertake a long-distance move to accept a job in the private sector. Such would not be the case for some of the patent professionals working in USPTO satellite offices. 

Lawmakers and governors from California to Massachusetts competed for the other regional offices. Why? They believe the USPTO satellite offices will create hundreds of high-paying jobs; generate millions of dollars in economic activity; and attract technology companies, law offices, and other ancillary businesses to areas where the branch offices are located. 

Selection of the first four sites was based on a comprehensive analysis of criteria, including geographical diversity, regional economic impact, potential ability to recruit and retain employees, ability to engage the intellectual property community, and extensive publiccomment. For example, the Detroit area is home to Fortune 500 companies, large law firms, and outstanding research institutions and boasts a low cost of living and skilled talent pool. The selection team developed a model to evaluate more than 50 Metropolitan Statistical Areas based on the previously stated criteria to assess operational cost and feasibility, ability to improve patent quality, and ability to employ U.S. veterans. 

USPTO – Detroit 

The recently opened (July 13, 2012) USPTO-Detroit is expected to create about 125 high-paying, high-skill jobs in its first year while providing a boost to the area’s innovation economy. Most of these positions should be filled by the end of 2012. The Detroit office is located in 31,000 square feet of rented office space in a remodeled building at 300 River Place, the former home of drug company Parke-Davis Laboratories and the Stroh’s Brewery headquarters. 

Detroit had to meet a variety of criteria to land the first branch office. It already has a high percentage of scientists and engineers in the workforce; provides access to major research institutions, particularly leading universities; and supports a high volume of patenting activity with significant numbers of patent agents and attorneys already living in the area. While bad economic news about Detroit dominates the media, the population of college-educated residents between the ages of 25 and 39 increased a whopping 59 percent in the past decade, making for a highly educated workforce. 

According to Azam Khan, USPTO deputy chief of staff, work at the Detroit office initially will focus on patent applications focused on mechanical and electrical engineering innovations. 

Final thoughts 

Bruce Katz, vice president of the Brookings Institution, notes that the ability to innovate is critical in enabling cities to grow their economies in the wake of the ‘Great Recession.’ What Katz calls a “strong innovation ecosystem” facilitates the development of new products and production processes. The USPTO branch offices can become part of this innovation ecosystem.