Remarks by Director Michelle K. Lee at South by Southwest

2016 South By Southwest Interactive Festival

Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Michelle K. Lee

“New Face, New Pace: Innovation Beyond 2016” panel

Saturday, March 12, 2016

11:00 AM to 12:00 PM

Austin Convention Center

Thank you, Rachel for that introduction. And, what a pleasure it is to be back here with all of you at South By Southwest one year later. But I don’t have to tell any of you what an amazing gathering South by Southwest is. Where else is seed funding for start-ups contingent upon your ability to eat a habanero pepper before pitching your idea or physically require you to ride in an elevator to give your “elevator pitch”? Only in Austin and only at South by Southwest! For me, South By carries an especially important meaning. Right here, one year ago tomorrow, I was officially sworn in as the Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office. I was also the first, and to my knowledge the only, official to have had the honor of being sworn in on a plenary stage at South By. In retrospect, I cannot think of a place more fitting than SXSW to be sworn in as head of the USPTO. After all, the mission of USPTO is to promote innovation through IP. At that time, I tried to share with the attendees a bit about my background, my passion for innovation, and my commitment to being a leader that empowers our country’s budding entrepreneurs, is committed to bringing the resources of the USPTO into your local communities; and prioritizes inclusion within the technology industry. Over the last 12 months, my team and I have made good progress on all these priorities.

Just last week, President Obama (who was, of course, here in town) remarked that the innovators of South By, “are some of our most creative thinkers, coders, makers, and entrepreneurs from across the country.” I know from my visit last year that this is absolutely true. And, I also know, that now more than ever, intellectual property plays a leading role in the continued success of startups. In a time when more and more entrepreneurs have grown up embracing open source code and data, sometimes the notion of IP protections can seem foreign.  To those that may have doubts, I hear you. But remember, likely every one of you who has a business has a brand you wish to protect and some proprietary technology that you hope distinguishes your company from your competitors. All of which is protectable by intellectual property so it is imperative, that the USPTO, be here at South By, to engage on these important issues.

At times it is easy to forget how important intellectual property is to business, whether you are a two person startup or a Fortune 500. Twitter really came to notoriety here at South By in 2007. By 2014, Twitter held 962 Patents and numerous trademarks. In 2009, Foursquare launched here at South By. Foursquare is also a patent and trademark holder. A newly published study by the Harvard Business School and New York University found that “patent approvals help startups create jobs, grow their sales, innovate, and eventually succeed.” Specifically, the study determined that the approval of a startup’s first patent application increases its employment growth over the next five years by an average of 36 percent, boosts it sales growth by 51 percent, and increases the number of subsequent patents the company is granted by 49 percent. Not to be outdone, in 2011, Forbes Magazine opined that the world’s 10 most valuable trademarks combined are worth over 300 billion dollars. Without a doubt, IP is and will continue to be a crucial for your companies as they continue to develop and thrive in this information based economy. 

That said, as I am sure many here have realized, startup businesses face unique IP-related challenges as they begin to grow. Indeed, it can sometimes be difficult for businesses to know when and how you should protect and leverage your IP, or how to identify protectable subject matter. The bottom line is that making the right decisions in regards to your IP can mean the difference between success and failure. Naturally, my team and I at the USPTO, want to do everything we can to help your businesses succeed. This past fall, here in Texas, we reaffirmed our commitment to helping startups in Texas and across the country by announcing our new Startup Partnership.  Through this partnership, we are reaching the startup community nationwide and empowering young, high-growth businesses by answering your questions and listening to your concerns; brainstorming and cultivating programs and resources tailored to your unique needs and ensuring you have the tools and understanding you need to better navigate the U.S. intellectual property system. Some of these tools include our Inventor Assistance Centers which answer important questions on the patent and trademark process; our Pro Bono assistance for under-resourced innovators who recognize the need for intellectual property protection; and our online assessment tool that allows you to evaluate what IP assets you may have. But that’s not all we’re doing.

The USPTO recognizes that in an increasingly global marketplace, where your first sale or your first sale can just as easily be in Shanghai as in Austin. All companies, including and perhaps, especially, startups, need to start thinking international from day one. Of course, the international landscape for businesses varies greatly from country to country. So, to make this process easier for startups we are working with our international counterparts to ensure your IP is protected overseas and that there are legal remedies available if it is stolen. From China to Brazil to the European Union, we are working to foster an international business climate that is conducive to the sale of American products and services abroad. So, as you build your business, consider the wealth of resources the USPTO offers that can help support your goals.

However we know that you still have questions and issues, want answers, and need additional assistance. That’s why we are committed to breaking through the barriers of Washington D.C. and making sure we are working with you in your communities. This means more than just getting sworn into office outside of D.C. and more than giving the occasional speech. It means making USPTO services more easily accessible to you outside of our nation’s capital and closer to your local neighborhoods. To that end, we are actively working to better serve the local innovation economies through our new regional offices. We like to call these offices our “Innovation Embassies,” because they’re hubs of innovation, education and outreach. One year ago, we had only opened two offices in Denver and Detroit. Today, we have four. Denver, Detroit, Silicon Valley, and, of course Dallas opened just this past November. Having first been a director of a regional USPTO Office, I know the differences these offices can make. In addition to providing highly skilled jobs in the area, the regional offices provide outreach and education to all of our stakeholders, not just those who live in the D.C. area or who have the resources to travel there. Innovators and entrepreneurs who want firsthand engagement with our IP system shouldn’t have to fly up to our nation’s capital to do that. They should be able to do it in their own backyard. And now they will be able to do so. Whether meeting with a patent examiner to discuss an application, or attending educational and training programs on the basics of intellectual property, you will have easier access to a wider range of services offered by the USPTO. This will be especially beneficial to smaller companies and individual inventors.

Finally, last year I also spoke briefly, and in general terms, about the benefits of increased inclusion within the tech field. Let me be more specific today. I don’t need to tell you that the technology sector is one of, if not the, most vibrant parts of our economy. In less than 10 years, our country will need 1.7 million more engineers and computer scientists. These are high paying jobs with high projected growth. Today, however, women make up only 26% of the computing workforce and only 13% of the engineering workforce. Overall, women hold less than 25% of STEM jobs in the United States, despite filling close to half of all jobs in our country. Addressing this disparity is more than an issue of inclusion for inclusion’s sake, it is an economic, as well as social, imperative. In a day and age when our most innovative companies cannot hire the labor they need, and they are asking Congress to modify immigration laws to bridge the talent gap, we need to develop and nurture all our available talent regardless of size, shape, color, gender, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic background.


Last year, I asked all of you to commit to expand opportunities for girls and women in tech. Since I took my oath on this stage, my team and I have taken this message across the Globe from Washington D.C., to Dallas, to Beijing, to Europe and myriad places in between because this affects us all. What’s more, my team and I have launched our “All in STEM” initiative, specifically to encourage more women to pursue STEM degrees and advance in STEM careers. As part of this initiative, USPTO has engaged in a partnership with Invent Now, with whom we run an annual summer program called Camp Invention. This program reaches more than 100,000 kids (boys and girls including from under privileged backgrounds) every year and its programs provide hands on STEM skills, as well as basics on patents and trademarks. We also hold a National Summer Teacher Institute, designed to help middle and high school teachers better prepare young minds for STEM careers. If we're successful in providing more paths for more Americans to pursue education, training, and jobs in the STEM fields, our nation will become even more competitive in the years ahead.

Helen Keller once said that “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement.” As I look around South By, I am incredibly optimistic about the future and I have faith that you all can achieve great things. You are the inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs who create, who inspire, and who form the backbone of our nation’s economy. You are also a shining example that no idea is too big to realize and no obstacle is too big to overcome. Thank you for allowing me to once again join in the greatest celebration of innovation and creativity in the country. I promise that USPTO will continue to be a partner with all of you in fostering a future of innovation, inclusion, and discovery. Until next year, thank you very much!