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USPTO Director Discussion: The Future of American Innovation and the Role of the University

On January 14, 2021, Andrei Iancu, Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property & Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, spoke to the Duke, UNC, and Triangle community about building a more supportive and inclusive innovation ecosystem.

The event was hosted by Bryant Moore, Director of Strategic Partnerships for the UNC Office of Technology Commercialization, and included a Q/A session moderated by Arti Rai, Elvin R. Latty Professor of Law and Faculty Director for The Center for Innovation Policy at Duke Law.

Here are some highlights:

Historical Context

“Let’s just think about where the world was and what the state of humanity was just about 200 years ago when this country was founded,” Iancu said in his opening remarks. “It took about two weeks to get news of the Declaration of Independence from Philadelphia over to Virginia, which was about the same amount of time it took Alexander the Great to get news of his victory in 331 BCE back to his capital in Macedonia. So what exactly happened 200 years ago to change the course of humanity so dramatically and so almost instantaneously?

For my purposes, it was the United States Constitution and the inclusion of the intellectual property clause […], the establishment of the modern copyright and patent systems. For the first time in human history, you had a document that created a democratized innovation system of laws. You no longer have to be friends with the crown, you didn’t have to be rich. Anyone could, at least theoretically, invent. Anyone could, at least theoretically, obtain protection for those inventions. The overall result, looking at the span of history for the past couple hundred years, has been absolutely dramatic.”

The Need for Change

“It is so important that more women and underrepresented minorities engage in intellectual property creation and innovation ecosystem growth. The United States cannot keep competing on the world stage with one hand tied behind our back. We need everyone to have equal opportunity and equal access to innovation. We created the National Council for Expanding American Innovation, comprised of leaders from government, industry, and academia, to create a strategy that will take specific actions to achieve measurable results.”

Creating Measurable Goals

“Five-year-olds come into kindergarten excited and with an open mind, they’re creative, they want to learn. By middle school we begin to lose folks, certainly we lose them in high school, we lose them at a college level, we lose them at the employment level, we lose them when they try to commercialize and venture capital dollars go in hugely disproportionate numbers to male-run firms. Let’s be specific about where along the path we’re losing them, and let’s be specific about the proposed solutions. The proposed solutions will be different for the different points along the inventive path. We shouldn’t be narrow in our approach; let’s get multiple metrics, and the metrics will be different for the different points along an inventor’s path.”

What Universities Can Do

“We can’t achieve our goals to diversify without universities. I think innovation education and IP education should be part of the curriculum, because folks who […] come from underrepresented groups and communities don’t have a built-in infrastructure, so for them to be able to penetrate the system, they need that education. Universities are a wealth of mentors and role models. Universities need to be specific and organized in a systematic manner, and give credit if appropriate, to consider mentorship and role model activities as part of performance evaluation.”

“I think it’s important for faculty and students who work in labs on university campuses to always consider intellectual property protection and always be engaged in discussions with universities’ tech transfer office early in the process. If they don’t, and then later decide they do need it, it might be too late. Sometimes without IP protection, you won’t be able to transfer technology to the market and disseminate it as broadly as possible. It is expensive to take a new technology, create the factory based on it, create a production line, a marketing plan, and put it out, and very often entrepreneurs will not take brilliant technology out of the universities if it doesn’t come with IP protection to safeguard their investments. It’s too bad for the world, because so much good comes out of the universities. […] Here in the Triangle, in particular with our interest in life sciences innovation, I think we’ve gotten the message out that without IP, your brilliant idea is going to die on the shelf.”

The COVID Pilot Program

“What we created in the early days of the pandemic, so maybe about nine months ago now, is an accelerated examination program for patent applications that relate to COVID [where the PTO will make a final resolution within six months]. That is incredible speed; on average it takes us about 24 months. This program is available to what we define as small and micro entities—in other words, the big vaccine companies you’ve heard about don’t qualify for this program. They do have access to an accelerated program, but they have to pay for it. This program is free for small and micro entities, and universities are small entities.”

“We’ve also created a licensing platform at called Patents for Partnership, also for COVID-related technologies, where you can voluntarily list a technology on our website and indicate that it’s available for licensing. If you’re a research lab or a manufacturer and you want to get access to some of these technologies, you can see if something is of interest and connect with the owner.”

Resources for Inventors

Elizabeth Dougherty, Eastern Regional Outreach Director for the USPTO, shared helpful resources, many of them listed on the USPTO website, She encouraged attendees to use resources—including introductory materials especially designed for inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs—and look into the many free virtual educational events held each month. The North Carolina Bar Foundation partnership, a pro bono program, provides free legal service to qualifying applicants, and local inventor organizations and nonprofits like the Inventors’ Network of the Carolinas can provide additional support.

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