Remarks by Deputy Director Peter at 2019 Conrad Challenge Innovation Summit

Remarks delivered at 2019 Conrad Challenge Innovation Summit

Deputy Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Laura Peter

April 25, 2019

Kennedy Space Center, FL

As prepared for delivery

Good afternoon everyone, and thank you, Nancy Conrad, for your kind introduction. It’s a pleasure to be with all of you today to celebrate innovation.

Since Nancy began the Conrad Foundation in 2008, you have all done amazing things. I am delighted to see so many young students in the audience - students being encouraged to invent technologies we have never dreamed of before. Each of you has demonstrated phenomenal intelligence, perseverance, collaboration, and ingenuity. And all before you are 19 years old! You are proof that one is never too young to invent. Because, like the Conrad Challenge’s philosophy says, you don’t just think outside the box, you think like there is no box!

Today I am especially excited to be here, at the Kennedy Space Center, because I have always been enamored by space—the great unknown. When I was a little girl, my father was a vice president at Hughes Aircraft Company, and they were launching the first geosynchronous satellites into orbit. So, when I was about three years old, I decided I wanted to be an astronaut. I learned later in life that I didn’t like heights very much, so that profession was out for me.

In 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space at the age of 32. To this day, she remains the youngest American astronaut. She went to my high school in Los Angeles. When I was in about 7th grade, I remember she came to my school to speak to us and inspire us. We were all so excited to meet a real astronaut!

And, today we are at the place where history is made. Sally Ride’s first mission on the Space Shuttle Challenger was launched from here. Apollo 11, the first spaceflight that landed on the moon almost 50 years ago, was launched from here. And Apollo 12, the second spaceflight to land on the moon was launched from here.

And on that Apollo 12 mission, was an astronaut who holds a special place in the hearts of all of us here today, the namesake of the Conrad Foundation: Charles “Pete” Conrad Jr. On November 14, 1969, Intrepid landed on the moon’s Ocean of Storms, and Pete Conrad became the third man to walk on the moon.

Conrad joined NASA in 1962 and was the only astronaut to fly Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab. He was also the commander of the first successful space station mission. On Conrad’s first spaceflight in 1965, the Gemini 5 mission, he and Gordon Cooper set an eight-day space endurance record.

His many awards include a Congressional Space Medal of Honor, two NASA Distinguished Service Medals, two Navy Distinguished Service Medals, and two Distinguished Flying Crosses. Conrad was ahead of his time in many respects. In fact, he even took one of the first space selfies in 1969. His image was reflected in the helmet of his crewmate Alan Bean during their historic moon landing and a picture was snapped.

Being a man of short stature, Pete joked about his first steps on the moon: “Whoopee! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me.” During his four space missions over the course of his career, Conrad spent over 1,100 hours in space. A Buddhist monk once asked him if he saw God when he was in space. “I didn’t,” Conrad replied. “But if you wanna go look, I’ll drive.”

Conrad was not only a highly decorated Navy captain, an aviator, and an astronaut, he was also an inventor. Conrad received a U.S. patent for his invention of a “Multiple Access Satellite Communications Network.” This was a ground station for communicating with and controlling multiple independently launched satellites simultaneously. This technology is used to transmit communication signals, including telephone, microwave, television, radio, and internet.

Conrad’s inquisitive, innovative spirit lives on today in the Conrad Foundation and the Innovation Summit. In fact, we have some amazing inventors in the audience here today! All of you have conceived innovative products: from an underwater hazard detector, to a device for extinguishing wildfires with low frequency sound waves, from a catheter designed prevent infections, to a resistance suit for improving astronaut fitness, and the list goes on! I am impressed!

You are all examples of how we can help to improve our ecosystem through technology and inventions. And today’s competition only marks the beginning of an exciting journey for you. Many past Conrad Scholars have gone on to do remarkable things.

For example, a 2017 Conrad Scholar, Kavya Kopparapu created eyeagnosis to prevent blindness caused by diabetes. Inspired by her grandfather’s condition of diabetic retinopathy, Kavya developed a new way of screening for this disease using a 3D-printed lens attachment connected to a smartphone app. Named one of TIME’s 25 most influential teens in 2018, Kavya found her niche at the intersection of medicine and computer science.

Her current patent-pending project, called GlioVision, is a personalized targeted treatment for cancer, which uses a scanned image of a biopsy. Kavya believes that young students like her, and all of the students here today, have a unique perspective. She said, we “look at problems as they can be solved in the future, not as they are constrained by the technology right now.” This unfettered view frees you to be so creative and innovative.

At the age of 13, Kavya was first introduced to computer science, and by the age of 17 she was developing artificial intelligence tools. Troubled that she was one of only a few girls in her computer science classes at school, Kavya founded the Girls Computing League. This non-profit organization aims to empower under-represented groups in the technology workplace, encouraging girls to pursue computer science in middle school and high school. She said, “I don't want to be known as a girl that happens to be a computer scientist; I want to be known as a computer scientist that happens to be a girl.”

And this notion is part of why the USPTO is working hard to broaden the innovation ecosphere, and ensure that opportunities for innovation are available to everyone. Although women constitute over half of the population of the U.S., their participation in the intellectual property economy lags far behind their male counterparts. In the United States, less than 25% of the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) workforce comprises women. Plus, half of these women who work in STEM fields leave after 12 years (compared to 20% of other professional women), and the participation of women as inventors named on U.S. patents is even lower. A recent USPTO study found that women inventors comprise only 12 % of all inventors on patents granted in 2016. We can and should do better!

The USPTO, for its part, targets education and outreach to engage more girls and women in STEM. We must not forget that the wonder of discovery and the thirst for innovation begins at a young age, and it should be cultivated early on. The USPTO partners with a variety of organizations in novel outreach programs.

For example, the USPTO collaborates with the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame (NIHF) Camp Invention, which offers unique STEM summer programs to over 140,000 students annually, ranging in age from preschool to high school, all across the nation. In fact, over 40% of NIHF’s Camp Invention students are girls.

NIHF has also developed a superhero campaign - where inventors have the “superpower” to change the world. Notable female superheroes include rocket scientist Yvonne Brill, 3D movie pioneer Kristina Johnson, and life-saving biochemist Frances Ligler.

The USPTO also created an “Intellectual Property Patch Program” in partnership with the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital and the Intellectual Property Owners (IPO) Education Foundation. Since 2014, young Girl Scouts across the country can earn a patch in Intellectual Property and badges entitled “Inventor,” “Product Designer,” and “Entrepreneur.”

We have also created USPTO Inventor Collectible Cards, which feature caricatures of various innovators, as a fun way to educate children, and adults, about science, technology, invention, and IP. Today we are unveiling a special new card. Today, you will all be the first to receive the new Pete Conrad inventor card!

Earlier this morning, each of you received a number of other USPTO inventor cards, including one featuring astronaut Ellen Ochoa. Dr. Ochoa remembered, “I was eleven when they landed on the moon for the first time.” But she said, “women weren’t astronauts.” Ochoa says she was inspired to pursue this path when she saw Sally Ride become one of the first six women selected for the astronaut program.

Dr. Ochoa served nine days aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, becoming the first Hispanic woman in space. She is former director of the Johnson Space Center, and is a veteran of four NASA Space Shuttle flight missions, having spent almost 1,000 hours in space.

Dr. Ochoa is also an accomplished musician, having played classical flute with the Stanford Symphony Orchestra. I have always thought there is a connection between music and science and engineering. There is something about the discipline of music that can act as a catalyst for mathematics and science.

Dr. Ochoa is also an accomplished inventor. Dr. Ochoa currently holds three U.S. patents directed to optical systems. Ochoa’s advice to all of us is to “dream bigger dreams, have bigger goals, and think of doing more.”

These words seem to embody the mission of the Conrad Foundation. Remarkable inventors such as Pete Conrad, Kavya Kopparapu, and Ellen Ochoa remind us how important it is to have a strong, stable, and reliable intellectual property system. By telling inspiring stories such as these, we encourage innovation and actualization of life-changing inventions.

The USPTO looks forward to continuing our collaboration with the Conrad Foundation to ensure that the child-like wonder of discovery is nurtured, and that the spark of innovation is fueled. 

Thank you again for the opportunity to be with you here today. I welcome any questions you may have.