Remarks delivered at the United Inventors Association Leadership Day
Deputy Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Deputy Director of the USPTO Laura Peter
September 12, 2019
As prepared for delivery
Good morning and thank you Warren (Tuttle) for that kind introduction. Welcome to all of you to the USPTO, and welcome especially to those of you who are making your first visit to our headquarters.
Inventors are the driving force behind the innovations that move our country forward and grow our economy. Simply put, the inventor is the heart and
soul of innovation in America, a concept engrained in our very essence, in the Constitution itself. It provides Congress the power “To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”
Similarly, in the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
At the core of this philosophy is the concept of natural rights, and that a person who invests his or her work in creating something is entitled to reap the rewards of that work. Jefferson said, in his First Inaugural Address: “a wise and frugal government ... shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”
Inventions and artistic works are the bread that labor has earned and which the individual is entitled to keep. Our patent system enshrined in the Constitution itself grants to inventors the rights to reap the rewards of their innovations for a limited time, in exchange for sharing their knowledge for the benefit of society.
So whether you’re a startup, or part of a corporate team, as an inventor, you are the core constituency of American innovation — For your efforts, you deserve the just rewards.
Here, at the USPTO, you’re entitled to appropriately-scoped patent rights. Our hope is that your patented invention earns you recognition and profit in the marketplace.
Your success redounds to the public, not only in the form of job creation and economic growth, but also through the enjoyment of innovation that would otherwise be unavailable. But what does it take to be a successful inventor? Each of you has an idea.
Having met many inventors in my work as an intellectual property attorney in Silicon Valley, I have my own views. An inventor must have vision, creativity, motivation, and perseverance to see his or her idea through to fruition.
If you’re an independent inventor you must have these traits in abundance, as well as uncommon patience and dedication. Also, you must be self-reliant. And I think this is the true spirit of the inventor.
A leading light of the 19th century dubbed “America’s philosopher,” captured this spirit in words, is Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his essay titled “Self-Reliance,” Emerson advised: “Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another, you have only an extemporaneous, half possession.” In other words, you must be yourself.
One inventor who exhibits this quality is Lonnie Johnson, an accomplished engineer who followed his own curiosity when an idea he was working on showed potential for more playful endeavors.
Johnson earned degrees in mechanical and nuclear engineering at Tuskegee University before joining the U.S. Air Force. Later, while working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, he would often work on projects at home in his spare time.
In a moment of serendipity, he took a hose with a homemade nozzle and hooked it up to his bathroom sink and shot a stream of water across the room. He immediately realized he could make a really powerful water gun. He was already a patented inventor, but had trouble figuring out how to commercialize his ideas.
He thought maybe a toy would be something an investor could appreciate, and maybe he could finally start his career as a full-time inventor. The result of his work was what became known as the Super Soaker water gun, which earned Johnson millions and became one of the world’s best-selling toys.
The road wasn’t easy — it took seven years from when he first conceived his invention to landing the crucial deal with the toy company Larami and getting the Super Soaker to market. He considered manufacturing the product himself, but realized the investment required far outstripped the salary from his day job. So, he shopped his invention around to different toy companies and had many false starts. What made the difference was a presentation where he shot his water gun across the boardroom at Larami’s headquarters.
Johnson summed up his view on inventing during an interview at the USPTO last year, when he said, “The key to success or the most important thing above anything else is perseverance.”
Another inventor who knows how to persevere is Alice Chun. Chun was a professor teaching Architecture and Material Technology at Columbia University when an earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010. Professor Chun was inspired to turn her studio into an innovation lab, working together with her students to develop an inflatable solar-powered light. Over 1.6 billion people today live without electricity in developing countries. For light after dark, they must rely on kerosene lamps, which emit noxious fumes and cause countless fires.
Chun started Solight Design to provide clean, sustainable lighting, to help reduce pollution and allow children around the world to safely read at night. Solight Design’s first product, the SolarPUFF™, is a compact foldable light made of a flexible waterproof material with a solar panel on top. Due to the unique origami-based design, the cube is self-inflatable and floats.
Alice’s artistic background allowed her to create a light that is both useful and aesthetically pleasing. She believes that “design provides dignity,” which is especially important when providing aid to impoverished communities. Although this light was designed with developing countries in mind, the unique design also makes it perfect for camping or outdoor use.
Solight Design is a winner of the 2018 USPTO Patents for Humanity award. Alice states, “it’s been difficult being a woman and a minority … having a patent has made it easier for me to get funding and get the respect of investors.”
Inventions like Chun’s not only fulfill essential needs but can also provide hope. Over 300,000 SolarPUFFs™ have provided light to people around the world, including in Haiti, Nepal, and Nigeria. When Chun personally handed SolarPUFF™ lights to children in Dominica, she named them “light warriors” and commanded that they should “fight with the light in their minds and the light in their hearts, and never give up.”
I’d like to make another important point about inventors. At the USPTO, the names of inventors on patents reflect that our doors are open to everyone. Anyone who has a meritorious invention can receive a patent. However, not all inventors apply for patents equally.
Although women constitute over half of the U.S. population and almost two thirds of women participate in the general U.S. workforce, women’s participation in STEM fields and in the IP system lags far behind that of their male counterparts. In the United States, only about a quarter of the STEM workforce comprises women. Plus, half of the women working in STEM fields leave within twelve years, with the majority of these women transitioning out of STEM jobs within 5 years. The participation of women as inventors named on U.S. patents is even lower.
Recently, the USPTO released a report titled “Progress and Potential: A profile of women inventors on U.S. patents.” The report shows that, in 2016, women inventors still comprised only 12% of all inventors on patents granted.
If we are to maintain our technological leadership, the United States cannot continue to compete with so much talent left untapped. A recent Harvard study found that increasing invention rates among women, minorities, and children from low-income families could quadruple the rate of U.S. innovation.
The USPTO is committed to expanding the innovation ecosphere geographically and demographically in an effort to unleash this untapped potential to the benefit of all Americans. To get to the doorstep of the USPTO, you must recognize the value of your scientific and technical contributions. In the words of Emerson, you must “Insist on yourself.”
Part of that is seeing examples and receiving encouragement from others like you who have been successful. Organizations like yours can help us raise awareness and get the message out that we need everyone with a passion for science and technology to participate in our innovation ecosystem. We at the USPTO welcome you through our doors to contribute the innovation ecosystem in America.
I hope many of you will stay here through tomorrow, to attend the USPTO’s Invention Con 2019. Invention Con not only imparts useful information, but also celebrates the importance of the self-reliant, persevering, creative problem solver — you, the inventor — to our country.
Thank you for what you do as inventors, and for leading others in the invention industry.