Remarks by Director Andrei Iancu at U.S. Institute of Peace

“Unleashing American Innovation” Symposium 

Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Andrei Iancu

April 19, 2018

U.S. Institute of Peace, Simon Conference Center

2301 Constitution Avenue, N.W.

Washington, D.C.

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Good morning everyone, and thank you to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) for organizing and hosting today’s symposium. 

It’s a great pleasure to be among this esteemed group of innovation, intellectual property, and technology transfer leaders. I’ve been looking forward to our discussion today ever since Walt was kind enough to invite me several weeks ago.

The American patent system is as old as our nation. Our very first Congress passed the Patent Act of 1790. Indeed, this was one of the earliest bills introduced in Congress when the nation was first formed.

President George Washington signed the first U.S. patent on July 31, 1790, to inventor Samuel Hopkins – for making potash, an ingredient used in fertilizer. And, after issuing patents for almost 228 years, we will grant patent number 10 million in just a few months.

Fun fact: It took 75 years to issue the first million patents. It took three years to issue our last million patents.

Throughout our nation’s history, and backed by our patent system, American ingenuity has been at the forefront of every major scientific and technological revolution.

Take, for instance, Dr. Marvin Caruthers, whose lab-to-market inventions led to remarkable job creation and progress for our nation. Like many innovators, Caruthers was just a kid when the exciting possibilities of science first captured his imagination. He remembers being in third grade when his parents gave him, as he put it, a “real chemistry set with real chemicals that could be used for all kinds of fun stuff.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Iowa State, he was accepted into the biochemistry doctoral program at Northwestern University, where he and his colleagues began the cumbersome – and highly specialized  work of synthesizing DNA, a process that held little interest for other leading biologists and biochemists at the time. Indeed, Caruthers recalls people at conferences telling him that he should do something “more interesting” with his career.

Nonetheless, he continued his efforts in DNA synthesis through post-doctoral work at MIT, and from there as an assistant professor of biochemistry at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he and his team focused on transforming DNA synthesis from a highly specialized methodology into a widely-used research, diagnostic, and forensic tool. The efforts of Caruthers and his team were wildly successful, and soon their work generated significant publicity.

Then one day in 1980, UCLA scientist Winston Salser contacted Caruthers and invited him to join Salser and three venture capitalists who were thinking about forming a biotech company. At the time, Caruthers told me recently, there were only a handful of such startups in the country. Caruthers agreed to join the other four, and soon the group had assembled the foundations to start a company in Thousand Oaks, a suburb of Los Angeles.

They called it Applied Molecular Genetics.

Now known as Amgen, it is the largest independent biotechnology firm in the world and the employer of 14,000 people across North America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Middle East.

In 2017, its market cap was reported at $138 billion with total revenue at over $22 billion.

Amgen’s visionary founders succeeded in bringing breakthrough therapeutics to the market at a time when both venture-capital financing and biotechnology were new to the world. And because Caruthers’ discoveries had the protection of patents behind them, companies and venture capitalists were willing to put money behind his ideas.

Without the protection of patents, Caruthers told me, “I don't think we would have had a really serious biotechnology business. Because you have to have patents to protect your technology in order to attract investors to lay down millions of dollars to start a company. They want to know what you're bringing to the table that's worth their investment.”

Caruthers added, “Patents were absolutely critical to the development of the biotechnology industry.”

For his contributions to science and, indeed, the entire world, Dr. Marvin Caruthers will be formally inducted – along with 14 other innovation pioneers –into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (NIHF) on May 3. 

Dr. Caruthers exemplifies the brilliance of American invention, working within the context of our intellectual property system. A true lab-to-market success story!  And he is not alone.

I spoke earlier this month at the National Academy of Inventors (NAI) Gala in Washington, D.C., where I had the honor of congratulating NAI’s newest class of 155 fellows, all accomplished innovators working in the academic context. Collectively, NAI’s current total of 912 fellows hold more than 32,000 issued U.S. patents, which have generated more than 9,400 licensed technologies and companies, and created more than 1.3 million jobs. (That’s an average of 1425 jobs per NAI Fellow!) Additionally, more than $137 billion in revenue has been generated based on NAI Fellow discoveries.

For Caruthers and for these NAI Fellows, and for countless other inventors and entrepreneurs who walk through our doors, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has been at the center of their efforts.  

With almost 13,000 incredibly dedicated public servants, the USPTO houses the world’s greatest collection of intellectual property knowledge and experience. At the heart of our agency are over 8,000 patent examiners – the people who are on the front lines to serve inventors and foster innovation.

The vast majority of our examiners have an engineering or other technical degree.

About 2,000 examiners have masters degrees; and About 1,000 examiners have doctorate or post doctorate degrees.

As director, I am focused on providing our examiners with the tools and training (including guidance) necessary to ensure that we issue reliable and quality patent rights; and, indeed, we are issuing a new guidance memo today as a start towards clarifying some aspects of the complex area of patentable subject matter. I am also focused, among other things, on ensuring that our post-grant proceedings are balanced and fair to both patent owners and challengers alike.

For our IP system to function as intended, patent owners and the public must have confidence in the patent grant. And when patent owners and the public have confidence in the patent grant, inventors are encouraged to invent, investments are made, companies grow, jobs are created, and science and technology advance.

A reliable, predictable and high-quality patent system, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, gives “a spring to invention beyond my conception.”

Now, more and more, innovation is the engine behind economic growth.

Born of our Constitution and steeped in our history, our patent system is the crown jewel that provides both the incentives and the protections necessary to enable that innovation and resulting growth. The USPTO is the proud guardian of that system, and we work tirelessly to ensure that it meets its full constitutional mandate “to promote the progress of science and useful arts.”

Thank you again for the invitation to speak, and I look forward to continuing the conversation in our panel discussion.