March's spark of genius article
Philosophy of Innovation
In 2012, one of the first patents with help from the Patent Pro Bono Assistance Program was granted, but where is the inventor now?
Paul Ashman learned to ride a bicycle at age six. By high school, he had built a car using old plumbing and junkyard parts in metal shop.
“I've been doing things that I don't officially know how to do and building things I've never built before since I was a little kid,” said Paul, a self-professed “gearhead.”
In college, Paul’s interests in the nontechnical diverted him from a formal engineering education. He ended up receiving a degree in philosophy—critical thinking skills that would influence the way he approached technical problems later in life.
By the time Paul began operating his own online shop retailing (and later wholesaling) motorcycle parts and accessories, he had already created several motorcycle-related products, but he had never attempted to patent one. That changed when a client asked Paul to create an elegant solution to a common motorcycle problem.
In order to maintain speed on a motorcycle, riders must apply continuous wrist tension to the throttle. “And that's just fine in town, or when it's necessary to change your throttle all the time,” explained Paul, “but when you're out on the highway, it's nothing but a burden. Your wrists can get tired, and you can have circulation trouble in your hands from having to hold the grip so hard for so long.”
Paul created a simple yet effective device called a “throttle lock,” essentially a mechanical cruise control, to maintain constant speeds on motorcycles. He filed a provisional application for patent and, after the allotted year, followed up with a corresponding nonprovisional application and began filing it without an attorney (or “pro se”).
Paul’s story is intertwined with the Patent Pro Bono Program, which connects inventors with volunteer patent attorneys to ensure that no deserving invention goes unpatented for lack of its inventor’s financial resources. The program started as a pilot initiative of LegalCORPS, a volunteer attorney organization in Minnesota, and was subsequently validated and expanded by the America Invents Act of 2011. No sooner had the ink dried on President Obama’s signature when Paul sat down for his first meeting with Amy Salmela, a patent attorney who volunteered to take his case.
“We knew there were many inventors that didn't want to, or couldn't afford to work with an attorney, and therefore were prosecuting their applications pro se and maybe running into challenges,” said Amy. “What we were looking for when we launched were clients that were further along in the process and really needed some help.”
By the time Amy had signed onto the case, Paul’s had more or less completed the application on his own, but Amy helped straighten it out and prepare it for the prosecution ahead.
“Amy totally straightened it out and did what I consider to be the indispensable work, expertise‑wise of dealing back and forth with the patent examiner.”
The application issued September 25, 2012, as U.S. patent no. 8,272,294.
Today, applicants to the Pro Bono program apply directly online to regional programs that cover one or more states. Applications are screened by the respective programs, who then decide whether to accept the cases. The USPTO provides support and oversight, but each program operates with a degree of autonomy. Since inception, hundreds of inventors have been accepted into various pro bono programs across the country, with dozens of patents issued or receiving a notice of allowance.
As a patent attorney, the motivation for and benefits of working pro bono are easy for Amy to identify.
“It all comes back to access to justice. And if you have inventors that need assistance in prosecuting an application in order to protect their idea and they can't get access to the legal assistance they need because it's complicated or expensive, then that's a lack of access to justice. If we can help folks do that, all the better.”
Amy said Minnesota’s reputation for a strong culture of pro bono legal assistance was also a factor in encouraging her to volunteer.
“A lot of patent attorneys were like me and had never really done any pro bono service because we couldn't find a way to do it in our area of expertise. So, for me, this was fulfilling something that was personally important to me: giving back, providing pro bono service, but doing it in a way that was very much in my wheelhouse.”
Becoming involved in the pro bono program also gave Amy opportunities to network with other attorneys in private practice, not just in Minnesota, but all across the country. For her continued work with the pro bono program, Amy was named one of LegalCORPS Volunteers of the Year for 2014.
Unfortunately, the story of Paul’s throttle lock and the patent he received is not one of financial reward. But it also illustrates the important point that a patent is never a guarantee for success in the marketplace.
“It never occurred to me to go out and do all the outreach and talking to people and doing marketing and glad handing and doing all these things that I see entrepreneurs doing all the time. It was so distasteful to me. I was hoping with the website [the throttle lock] would sell itself. Bottom line: it didn't.”
Paul also explained that a trend in motorcycle development has been to include electronic fuel injection, which makes cruise control a somewhat simple programming matter.
But that doesn’t stop Paul from thinking about his next move or from extrapolating useful knowledge from the case of his throttle lock—an ability acquired, perhaps, from his training in philosophy. The experience taught him a lot about the patent process, and also about his own approach to innovation and product development.
“You won't be successful if you're not playful, open minded, looking around constantly, all around you for the little piece that might solve a problem. You can't be thinking linearly, and that's where I thrive. I belong on the line between chaos and order.”
Visit the Patent Pro Bono Program on the USPTO website for more information about pro bono assistance. Financial need is one of the requirements to be accepted into a program. For inventors who do not qualify for pro bono but still intend to file for a patent on their own, the Pro Se Assistance Program provides helpful resources and assistance.