Remarks by Michelle K. Lee at South by Southwest

USPTO Deputy Director Michelle K. Lee

March 13, 2015, 12:30 p.m., Austin Convention Center

South by Southwest Interactive

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Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Good afternoon, everyone! And thank you for having me here today. I’m thrilled to be at South by Southwest this year, where I feel at home among so many fellow techies. 

I was born and raised in the Silicon Valley and spent my entire career there, working alongside people like you—innovators, entrepreneurs, and disrupters in the best sense of the word. Since my father and I built our first Heath Kit radio together when I was a young girl, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship have been constants in my life.  My dad was an immigrant and an engineer, drawn to these shores, like so many others, by the promise of the American Dream. In fact all of the dads on the street where I grew up were engineers. Many of them started companies, often times based on a patented idea, and obtained venture capital funding to bring their inventions to the marketplace. Some of those companies succeeded, and some did not. But for those that did, a number of them revolutionized the world and the way we live.

Before my career in law, I studied electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, where I was one of only a few women graduate students working in the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab. It was a thrilling experience and one that informs my work even today. And,  I can still program in more languages than I speak, a point of pride for me as I lead the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

That same passion for technology and innovation is what led me to study and practice intellectual property law, to help some of the most innovative companies protect and commercialize their inventions. And I took that passion with me when I became the first Head of Patents and Patent Strategy at Google, when it was still a young company. My team and I helped build the company’s portfolio from handfuls of patents to over 10,500 in the span of eight short years.

So, like many of you, I’ve been in the lab and on the front lines of innovation. When I left Google to work for the USPTO, I brought with me a first-hand understanding of how critical innovation and intellectual property are to our nation’s continued economic success. At the same time, I understand how IP protections that are too strong can disincentivize innovation, just as easily as protections that are too weak.   And I come to work every day committed to ensuring that our nation’s IP system is balanced, promotes innovation, and empowers innovators like you.

Throughout my career in tech, I’ve often been one of a small number of women in the room and at the table. And, now, thanks to President Obama and Secretary Pritzker, I’m the first woman Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office in our nation’s 200+ year history. And while I’m truly honored to serve in this important role, I’m deeply concerned that, 15 years into the 21st Century, far too few women are getting into tech, and even fewer are staying in the field. Far too few women are founders of tech companies, or in the leadership ranks of the tech companies and investment firms that form the backbone of our innovation economy.

There’s no doubt that women in tech face too many barriers to entry and success. These barriers are not only bad for women, they’re bad for all of us.  We cannot innovate or grow this economy to its full potential unless we ensure that no innovator or entrepreneur is left behind.   Many of you here today run companies, make hiring and promotion decisions, and create work culture and policy. All of you here today have the capability to mentor, to open your networks, to volunteer, to teach, and to inspire others about the things that inspire you and inspired me when I was a young girl: 

  • the wonders of technology,
  • the excitement of entrepreneurship, and
  • the opportunity to change the world for the better through innovation.

Today, I ask you to join with me in a commitment to open up and expand opportunities for women in tech. Working together, we can break through these barriers.  We can better prepare more girls and young women to pursue careers in technology, and then empower them to thrive in those careers for the benefit of our economy and society.

Of course, my broader mission at the USPTO is to empower all innovators: men, women, and even children. As a former technologist and legal and business advisor to some of the most innovative high tech companies, every day I ask myself, what would I want from the USPTO?  The answer is a lot. And so we’re pretty busy, working to help all of you. We’re taking an approach familiar to many of you. We’re embracing Big Data and Open Data initiatives, and considering the use of artificial intelligence search tools, so that we can better serve your needs.  And we’re doing something else familiar to everyone here: we’re using crowdsourcing techniques to provide our examiners information that can help them better determine if the technology described in a patent application is truly new, novel, and patentable. This doesn’t just benefit us; it benefits you, by helping us issue the very best quality patents possible. I understand and appreciate, from a business perspective, the very real cost to startups and society if patents issue that should not have issued, and the value of a good quality patent in helping a start-up enter the market full of competitors. That’s why we recently launched an Enhanced Patent Quality Initiative, with proposals we’ll be discussing with the public at a two-day summit on March 25th and 26th.

We’re also looking carefully at the patent system as a whole, to identify opportunities for meaningful and balanced legislative reforms that strengthen the system for innovators.  Abusive patent litigation is a cost to innovation and society that we must address, even as we continue to ensure that patent owners can enforce their legitimate rights.  I know that startups are especially vulnerable to abusive patent assertions, since the cost of patent litigation can easily exceed the amount of your latest round of funding.  And, as the discussions in Washington continue on how the patent system can best support innovation, I want to assure you that what is best for startups is an important part of that conversation.

Feedback from our startup community is especially important to everything we do.   In fact, since my plane landed in Texas yesterday morning, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and hearing from numerous entrepreneurs, incubators, seed accelerators, venture capitalists, and business leaders in Dallas and here in Austin. We want to hear from even more of you on how we can better support your businesses, especially through our regional satellite office in Dallas, which is set to open late this year. This office will provide innovators with local, easier and more cost-efficient access to a wider range of USPTO services including on-site patent examiner interviews and IP training.

Having worked with startups, I know how limited funds are, especially in the early days and how useful it is to have local access to these USPTO services. With a wide range of USPTO services and a full complement of patent examiners and patent judges, the Texas Regional Office will be a great resource for innovators in the Lone Star State and throughout the Southwest.

From Day One, Secretary Pritzker has been a strong advocate and supporter of our regional offices, the USPTO, and my leadership of the Agency, and I want to thank her publicly for that unwavering support. It’s been a true privilege to work with Secretary Pritzker.  I’ve seen firsthand how deeply she understands the challenges facing America’s entrepreneurs and innovators.  She knows what can make the difference between business success and failure. Over the past 27 years she’s launched five businesses and served on the boards of five others. She’s built companies from the ground up, helping create thousands of jobs around the country–in fields ranging from capital-investment, to real-estate development, to senior living, and more.  Most importantly, she believes, as I do, that if we provide more paths for more Americans to innovate and create jobs, our nation will be even stronger and more competitive in the years ahead.

Joining Secretary Pritzker on stage today is another talented entrepreneur: Mr. Jon Steinberg.As CEO of Daily Mail North America, Mr. Steinberg has led the commercial expansion of the world’s largest English language newspaper website, building a readership of over 225 million visitors per month. Before that he was President and COO of BuzzFeed, which he grew from 15 employees to over 500 and turned into a global social advertising business. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in a warm welcome for our nation’s 33rd Secretary of Commerce, Penny Pritzker, and Daily Mail CEO, Mr. Jon Steinberg.