“It is estimated that millions of potential American inventors from underrepresented groups are not inventing or patenting.” – Sudeepto Roy, VP of Engineering, Qualcomm, and TIPA Program Lead
Earlier this month, IP diversity advocacy group Invent Together announced that it had launched an online learning platform known as The Inventor’s Patent Academy (TIPA), an e-learning course designed in collaboration with Qualcomm to educate inventors from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds about the benefits of engaging with the U.S. patent system. This online academy is the latest of several efforts by Congress and patent system stakeholders in recent years to unlock the innovative potential of women, people of color, LGBTQIA, and low-income inventors to benefit the U.S. economy.
Women and BIPOC Inventors Could Add $1 Trillion to U.S. Economy
Studies published by national patent offices in recent years have underscored the uphill battle that women inventors have faced in becoming part of the inventor community across the world. In February 2019, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) issued a study on women inventors showing that as of 2016, only 21% of patents listed any women inventors and only 4% of patents issued between 2006 and 2016 listed only women inventors. An update to this study published in July 2020 by the USPTO found that the share of women inventors among inventor-patentees increased slightly between 2016 and 2019, but still was only 12.8% in 2019. A low rate of women inventors is also reflected by studies in other countries, including an October 2019 study published by the UK Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO) showing that women inventors account for less than 13% of patent applications filed globally.
Several statistics published online by Invent Together show the difficult battle faced by inventors from low-income or underrepresented backgrounds. While nearly 1.8% of white college graduates apply for patents or own patents during their lifetimes, only 0.8% of Black college graduates and 0.9% of Latino college graduates reach the same milestone. According to Invent Together, the patenting rate among Black inventors peaked more than a century ago in 1899 and has experienced a downward trend ever since. Family financial stability is also a major indicator of patenting activity, as individuals born into families within the top 1% of income are ten times more likely to own a patent in their lifetime than those individuals born into families in the lower 50% of income. If Black/ Indigenous/ People of Color (BIPOC) and women inventors engaged in the U.S. patent system at the same rate as their white male counterparts, Invent Together reports that this increase to domestic innovation would add $1 trillion to the U.S. economy every year.
TIPA Course Contains Three Modules Covering Foundational Patent System Topics
According to information provided by Holly Fechner, Executive Director of Invent Together, the TIPA e-learning course consists of three separate modules, with each module taking anywhere from 90 minutes to two hours to complete, although the program is designed for students who want to finish the course at their own pace. The first module covers foundational aspects of the patent system, including an overview of IP rights as well as methods for overcoming systemic challenges. The second module provides an overview of patent law, including parts of a patent, inventorship, types of utility patent applications and patent timelines. The third and final module takes a deeper dive into advanced topics, including patent claims, office actions and post-issuance considerations. Many of the video segments recorded for the TIPA program feature inventors from underrepresented backgrounds who have already successfully navigated the U.S. patent system.
Fechner said that Invent Together plans to leverage its network of 20 member organizations, including the Association of American Universities, Qualcomm, the Lemelson-MIT Program, Boston University and the Association of University Technology Managers, to conduct the outreach necessary to make sure that members of underrepresented populations are engaging with TIPA. According to Sudeepto Roy, VP of Engineering at Qualcomm and TIPA Program Lead, there are a tremendous number of innovative individuals that the e-learning program could be targeting. “It is estimated that millions of potential American inventors from underrepresented groups are not inventing or patenting,” Roy said. “The lack of tailored information about the patenting process coupled with the financial barrier to entry prevents many inventors from patenting their inventions.”
Congressional Efforts on Patent System Diversity Include SUCCESS and IDEA Acts
On Capitol Hill, recognition of the diversity issues currently facing the U.S. inventor community has led to several legislative efforts in recent years. In 2018, the 115th Congress passed the Study of Underrepresented Classes Chasing Engineering and Science Success (SUCCESS) Act, which directed the USPTO to conduct the studies into women inventors discussed above. A report to Congress on the SUCCESS Act studies submitted in 2019 under former USPTO Director Andrei Iancu identified several inclusivity initiatives that could be pursued at the agency level. These initiatives included the creation of the National Council for Expanding American Innovation (NCEAI), which was established in September 2020 to bring together top minds in industry, academia and government for the development of a national strategy on improving inclusivity in the U.S. innovation ecosystem.
Lawmakers in Washington, D.C. have also been working to advance the Inventor Diversity for Economic Advancement (IDEA) Act, a bill designed to address a gap in demographic data which has hampered efforts to improve diversity in the U.S. patent system. If enacted as drafted, the bill would create a process by which inventors could voluntarily submit demographic data including gender, race and veteran status, and direct the USPTO to publish annual reports including demographic data broken down by the type of technology covered by the participating inventors’ patent applications. Last April, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the IDEA Act out of committee and by the end of last May, the IDEA Act was incorporated into the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act of 2021, which passed the Senate last June but has run into reconciliation issues with the America COMPETES Act, the counterpart competition bill making its way through the U.S. House of Representatives. Fechner told IPWatchdog that Invent Together supports passage of the IDEA Act as “a critical step in measuring national progress toward realizing greater diversity and inclusion in invention and patenting.”
Diversity initiatives like the TIPA e-learning course could help to unlock U.S. economic growth and provide social benefits from a wider swath of innovative minds. Criticisms of recent diversity initiatives, however, have pointed out that wider U.S. patent system issues making it near impossible for small businesses and independent owners to enforce their patent rights should be addressed alongside these inclusivity efforts. Hopefully, diversity advocates looking to increase patent ownership among underrepresented populations also come out in support of better clarity in Section 101 patent eligibility standards, among other issues, in order to ensure that women and minority inventors are able to keep and enforce their rights once they do obtain a patent.