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Friday Nov 13, 2020

Five years of innovation – Texas Regional USPTO

Blog by Laura Peter, Deputy Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Deputy Director of the USPTO

Texas 5 year logo

Recently, I spoke with Hope Shimabuku, USPTO’s Texas Regional Director in Dallas, about the five year anniversary of the Texas Regional U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (TXRO), innovation in the region, and her passion for championing the pursuit of STEM fields.

LP: Congratulations on the fifth anniversary of the Texas Regional Office! For those not familiar with the office, please tell us which states are in your region and what resources you provide to the public?

HS: Thanks Deputy Director Peter!  I am happy to be celebrating this landmark event for the TXRO.

The region covered by the TXRO includes eight states: Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and of course Texas. Throughout the region, we provide a number of resources both at the TXRO as well as within those states. 

Onsite, we provide in-person, written, and now virtual resources across the region to stakeholders who are interested in learning about intellectual property (IP) in general, as well as information about the patent and trademark processes. Additionally, we have facilities for stakeholders to conduct patent and trademark searching using the same software that our USPTO personnel use. Stakeholders can also meet one on one with patent examiners and engage in our many patent and trademark hearings held by the Patent Trial and Appeal Board and the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. Additionally, the TXRO provides a number of IP training courses for stakeholders, including our monthly Meet the Patent Experts and Meet the Trademark Experts – available to all stakeholders virtually.

Throughout the region, we work with a host of different organizations to provide resources closer to home. For example, we have collaborated with a number of providers to offer a Patent Pro Bono Program which covers the entire United States. The program matches volunteer patent professionals with a financially under-resourced inventor or small business owner to provide counsel for securing a patent. Seven programs are available to qualified stakeholders in the states covered by the TXRO.

Additionally, we have engaged libraries throughout the country as Patent and Trademark Resource Centers (PTRC). Each PTRC is able to access the search tools used by the USPTO. The PTRC also has at least one librarian trained by the USPTO to answer basic IP questions, as well as to provide support to stakeholders who are conducting searches. 12 PTRCs support the states associated with the TXRO.

Finally, the USPTO works with law schools in the region through the Law School Clinic Certification Program to establish and provide patent and trademark clinics for under-resourced inventors and small business owners. Students, under the supervision of practicing attorneys, work with stakeholders to secure patent and trademark protection for their inventions and businesses. In the TXRO region, there are six patent clinics and seven trademark clinics.

How many USPTO employees work in the TXRO and what are their roles?

The TXRO began with four female Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) judges housed in a temporary location in 2013 – all four of these judges are still with the USPTO to date, with three of them still associated with the TXRO. Since then, six classes of patent examiners, over two dozen PTAB judges, and many others have been hired to work based out of TXRO.

At of the end of FY20, the TXRO had 113 onsite employees: a Regional Director (me), an Assistant Regional Director, patent examiners, Patent Trial and Appeal Board judges, Patent and PTAB managers, an outreach team including a Regional Outreach Officer and outreach detailees, a Program Analyst, and support staff (including administrative, IT, ITRP, and security). Each employee supports the day-to-day activities and long-term strategic objectives of the USPTO and TXRO through examining patents, reviewing patent appeals review, hearing patent cases, supporting recruiting efforts, and engaging stakeholders through IP training and outreach activities. 

What have been your proudest accomplishments so far as Director of the TXRO?

The TXRO has made a tremendous impact throughout the entire innovation ecosystem. And the community and stakeholders in our region have welcomed us through all of it. The USPTO has been able to attract top, diverse talent in all capacities – historically, there is an incredibly high response rate for any job announcement to work at TXRO. I am particularly proud that 27% of the TXRO’s workforce are veterans, giving them the opportunity to continue to serve our nation through innovation. 

The TXRO has planned or participated in 1200+ outreach events, and reached 83,000+ stakeholders over the last five years. Every year since the opening of the TXRO, we have participated in the innovation segment of South by Southwest – an annual event focusing on emerging technologies – as well as EarthX – an event celebrating innovation in the sustainable energy realm. 

The TXRO was able to provide a STEM-based IP education during the total eclipse of 2017. We have also collaborated with the Greater Dallas-Fort Worth-based Congressional representatives and provided a Congressional Challenge Coding Kickoff Event--an event for which we provided hands-on training on coding as well as intellectual property to high school students. 

I am particularly proud of the Pro Bono Tour that we developed in collaboration with the State Bar of Texas – IP Section. This program reaches small business owners, entrepreneurs, and independent inventors in geographic locations which does not have access to IP resources, thereby enabling them to capitalize and use the IP system. From Girl Scout IP Patch programs to the Artificial Intelligence roundtables to the Patriot Bootcamps, the TXRO has been able to engage stakeholders in all facets of the innovation landscape.

Most importantly, the USPTO’s executive and senior leadership’s visible and regular engagement has been critical for ensuring the successful launch and sustained growth of the TXRO. USPTO leadership from our headquarters in Alexandria, as well as from our sister regional offices in Silicon Valley, Detroit, and Denver, has actively participated in town halls and met one on one with employees throughout the last five years, enabling our employees’ voices to be heard and creating a culture of investing in our employees’ future and success at the USPTO. Speaking and meeting with an executive at the TXRO is considered the norm rather than the exception.

Texas is an innovation and technology hub.  How have you seen various sectors change and grow these last few years? How about in other states in your region?

Over the last five years, innovation and technology hubs have increased and expanded in Texas and throughout the region. In Texas, many corporate headquarters have relocated to the area, expanding the technology footprint to now include increased automotive, construction, entertainment, military defense, cybersecurity, transportation and logistics, and pharmaceutical technology sectors. This growth adds to the existing aerospace, aviation, information technology, telecommunications, banking, finance, and energy technology industries. With the increase in these sectors, there has been a tremendous growth in flexible shared workspace locations and incubators for technology startups and services throughout Texas as well as in the region. Several well-known retail companies and university partnerships have also expanded and developed similar models throughout the entire region and seen similar growth. 

Recently, the USPTO launched the National Council for Expanding American Innovation, aimed at expanding the innovation ecosphere nationwide. Can you tell me a little about your journey and your work expanding the innovation ecosphere?

Expanding the innovation ecosphere and the launching of the National Council are initiatives that are critical to increasing participation and access to innovation throughout the entire innovation landscape, something that I have always been passionate about throughout my entire career. I am a native Texan and come from a long of line of engineers – my grandfather was a civil engineer and my dad is a mechanical engineer. After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin with a mechanical engineering degree, I worked as an engineer for two large corporations in the food and beverage and computer industries for six years before attending law school at Southern Methodist University – Dedman School of Law.

The idea of becoming a patent attorney came initially from my father – he mentioned the idea of patents and a post graduate law degree since I was in high school. I was introduced to the idea of patents again when I started working as an engineer.

During my time at the USPTO, the TXRO has actively engaged in a number of different efforts associated with expanding the innovation ecosphere throughout the country with the aim and goal of broadening, according to USPTO Director Andrei Iancu, the “intellectual property ecosystem demographically, geographically, and economically.” 

Much of the outreach at the TXRO focuses on entrepreneurs and small business owners who have questions on the best way of entering the innovation ecosystem. 

As mentioned above, one of my proudest accomplishments is the establishment of the Pro Bono Tour, which directly impacts and expands the innovation ecosphere in communities where intellectual property and innovation resources are not prevalent.

Recently, the USPTO launched an Expanding Innovation Hub on its website where readers can find our Progress and Potential reports. Before and after the release of these reports, the TXRO participated in many panels discussing the importance of expanding the innovation ecosystem. Director Andrei Iancu and I were able to meet with a number of corporate stakeholders and industry leaders in the greater Dallas-Fort Worth area and host roundtables discussing barriers to entry as well as how each of us can move the needle more quickly.

Members of the TXRO and other USPTO leaders have been and continue to be invited to work with industry leaders to help identify gaps, brainstorm ways to close the gaps, as well as develop best practices. The TXRO is already moving forward and supporting the wonderful efforts of the National Council by hosting roundtables and dialogues throughout the region to continue to expand the innovation ecosphere.

The pandemic has created a number of challenges, including the move to 100% telework at the USPTO. Can you tell us how the TXRO adapted to these new circumstances?

The TXRO rose to the occasion and rallied to ensure the safety and well-being of all employees throughout the entire pandemic. When the agency was moving towards mandatory telework, the management and support staff at the TXRO moved quickly to enable a new class of patent examiners, as well as other onsite employees, to make the move to telework. This included finding out-of-the box, creative ways to procure PIV badges and telework equipment for the new and non-teleworking employees, training employees on how to use equipment remotely, as well as ensuring continued training for the new class of patent examiners (who were only with the USPTO for three weeks before being sent to mandatory telework). 

Throughout the entire pandemic, the work-life committee, as well as the other local affinity groups, have made regular engagement and contact with TXRO employees a priority, holding meetings and virtual coffee breaks. All employees were able to switch to support virtual hearings and virtual examiner interviews, as well.

From an outreach perspective, the team quickly converted from in-person to virtual events, including hosting a TXRO record-breaking (with 1100+ unique attendees) all-day Trademark Boot Camp, which featured the first ever live, virtual Trademark Trial and Appeal Board oral hearings. Many of the regular scheduled monthly programs also saw an increase in participation, particularly with respect to increased geographic diversity. The TXRO has also increased collaborations and program offerings with the other regional offices to create regional programs, including ethics CLE programs for lawyers, as well as similar programs with universities. The TXRO participated in 186 total outreach meetings and events in FY20, with 86 of the meetings and events held in the second half of the year when we were working in a virtual environment. 

The TXRO, along with the Rocky Mountain Regional Office, entered into Phase 1 reopening in June 2020, allowing employees to work onsite as needed. 

What lies ahead for the TXRO in the next five years?

The theme for the five year anniversary is “Innovation Heroes: Serving the Nation through Innovation.” As we look into the future for the TXRO, I have no doubt that everyone in the TXRO will continue to carry the torch in expanding the innovation ecosystem. We are sewing together the future innovation fabric for the region as each patent and trademark is examined, as each case is heard, and as each individual learns about how to protect his or her intellectual capital. The work our employees do to serve the nation contributes to this fabric. Throughout the entire process, I believe that our employees are heroes serving the innovation community – they perform an incredibly difficult job where law, business, and technology converge. I look forward to being a part of that over the coming years.

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