April's spark of genius article

A Career Igniting the Inventive Spirit

Cathie Kirik : Office of Innovation Development

In this special edition of Spark of Genius, Inventors Eye honors an individual who has helped spark the passion for innovation in countless inventors and business owners across the country.

For the past four years, our "Spark of Genius" stories have featured individuals who have successfully created new inventions, launched companies, and in some instances changed our lives with their innovations. We've brought you their stories in an effort to inspire future inventors. Our story this time is about one of our own, a man who has inspired and encouraged many of us here at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to think like an inventor. He taught us to better understand and appreciate the challenges faced by inventors and to come up with ways to assist and encourage them to move to the next phase in realizing their dreams.

We want to share his story because at the end of June 2014, he will retire after a very successful 24-year career at the USPTO. Many of you may know him or know of him, but if you don't, let me share a bit about my colleague John Calvert, Senior Advisor for the Office of Innovation Development and OUR spark of genius.

John joined the USPTO in 1991 as a patent examiner, reviewing applications in the fields of wearable apparel and textile manufacturing, thermal and combustion technology, and motive and fluid power systems. I used to tease John, "So you examined sewing machines, socks, and underwear?" His return quip would be, "I (as a patent examiner) examined in the early soft-wear arts!" But his expertise was actually much more expansive. John moved up the ranks, serving on a variety of work assignments throughout the USPTO, but it wasn't until he became administrator for the Office of Independent Inventor Programs (now the Office of Innovation Development) that he realized his real passion: helping inventors understand the patent process.

In 1999, the USPTO created the Office of Independent Inventor Programs and John became a resource for its efforts to assist inventors. Over the years, he has given presentations and led workshops for inventor groups across the country, explaining the patent process and answering inventors' questions. In the early days, I prepared his travel arrangements, and he would tell me he wanted to go "south in winter and north in the summer." Unfortunately for John, it never really worked that way. One time, I sent him to Bismarck, N.D., in January. With the wind chill, it was -20 F. Sorry about that, John.

He enhanced the Inventors Resources pages of the USPTO website to include plain language text about the patent process, created podcasts and computer-based training modules, and also helped develop the IP Awareness Assessment Tool in partnership with the Manufacturing Extension Partnership at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. All of this was to assist inventors and small businesses through the journey of innovation. One of our early podcasts was quite popular and received a lot of views, but it also showed our inexperience at the time. John and his co-presenter were both filmed wearing dark suits on a dark backdrop, and the final result appeared to be two talking heads without supporting bodies!

John has a passion for teaching. As a job recruiter for the USPTO, he traveled frequently to universities and quickly realized that students often created intellectual property in their engineering and design classes, and many had questions about patents. This led John to expand our university outreach efforts to engineering and law schools to educate students about the patent process. Oftentimes these trips crammed multiple lectures in multiple classes with hundreds of students. Occasionally, John had no voice upon his return-and if you know John, you know that not talking is truly out of character for him!

John has been a part of all 18 independent inventor conferences the USPTO has hosted. (One year we did a conference while a large Star Trek convention was also happening in the same city. It made for some great pictures, but that's another story!) As the conferences have grown, so has John's "rock star" status. I've participated in 15 of the 18 conferences, and have seen attendees literally follow him back to the hotel to continue conversations and ask more questions about the patent process. Over the years, John and I developed a sign to keep things moving. John knew if I gave him "the sign" it would be time to tell the group, "I have to go or Cathie will get me," but even that didn't always work. I often had to pull him away from the crowds. He has always been very generous and genuine with his time and information, and many inventors have learned and benefited from his expertise.

During implementation of the America Invents Act (AIA) of 2011, John was instrumental in standing up the Pro Bono Program and a revamped Ombudsman Program as prescribed in the AIA. The Pro Bono Program is near and dear to John. Over the years, one of the comments the USPTO has heard the most is that "it costs too much to get a patent." Creating and shepherding the Pro Bono Program allowed John to put some muscle behind one of his frequent statements, "so no deserving invention lacks patent protection as a result of the inventor being financially under-resourced." To date, the Pro Bono Program serves 20 states and connects low-income inventors with volunteer pro bono attorneys.

Throughout his career, John has received recognition with a U.S. Department of Commerce Bronze Medal award, a USPTO Exceptional Career award, and most recently the U.S. Department of Commerce Gold Medal award for his leadership in developing the Pro Bono Program. The Gold Medal is the highest award given to employees by the Department of Commerce.

John has been a true and tireless champion for independent inventors, pro se applicants, and entrepreneurs. We wish him well and want to offer sincere and heartfelt thanks for his strong leadership, extensive efforts, and unfaltering guidance and vision as he passes the torch.

Thank you and good luck, John.

Enjoy your retirement!

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The USPTO gives you useful information and non-legal advice in the areas of patents and trademarks. The patent and trademark statutes and regulations should be consulted before attempting to apply for a patent or register a trademark. These laws and the application process can be complicated. If you have intellectual property that could be patented or registered as a trademark, the use of an attorney or agent who is qualified to represent you in the USPTO is advised.