Herb Wamsley is the Executive Director of the Intellectual Property Owners Association, and recently I had the opportunity to catch up with him to go on the record. Wamsley was in Brussels, Germany ahead of the International Judges Conference, sponsored by the IPO Education Foundation. Upon return from this trip there will be no travel rest for Wamsley though. He will receive the enormously prestigious Jefferson Medal on June 3, 2011, placing him in elite company within our industry, including past winners Judge Giles Sutherland Rich, Chief Judge Howard Markey, Chief Judge Paul Michel, Chief Judge Randall Rader, Donal Chisum, Karl Jorda, Senator Orrin Hatch, Dr. Triantafyllos Tafas and many other distinguished industry contributors.
The topic of my interview with Wamsley was the IPO Education Foundation’s search for the National Inventor of the Year. For 38 years the IPO has annually recognized an inventor, or inventive team, for remarkable achievement. Past winners have been independent inventors, University researchers and inventors employed by corporations. Unlike some other career honors, such as the Inventors Hall of Fame and the National Medal of Technology, the IPO seeks to honor inventors for contemporaneous inventions. The ideal nominee is one who had a successful innovation recently patented and recently commercialized, thus giving contemporary heroes of invention recognition for their endeavors.
In a bit of a twist this year, the party nominating the National Inventor of the Year will also be recognized. Most nominations come from patent attorneys, so this is a great way for the IPO to recognize the team behind the inventor, as well as honoring the inventor. The nomination deadline is June 1, 2011, so now is your chance attorneys and agents to nominate those inventors you work with for their innovative contributions. I can’t think of a more worthwhile endeavor for our industry than to recognize remarkable innovators, so I encourage everyone to go through their client rosters and nominate those outstanding inventors who deserve recognition.
Without further ado, here is my interview with Herb Wamsley.
QUINN: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me. I appreciate it. I know you’re busy traveling on business with IPO. I wanted to start our discussion on the IPO nominating process for the annual inventor awards. I understand there’s a bit of a twist this year. Can you give me some of the background on what’s going on, maybe what the deadlines are and what it is that IPO is searching for?
WAMSLEY: The deadline for submitting the award this year, Gene, is June 1st. And we’re doing a more exhaustive effort, a stronger effort to get a large number of nominations for the award this year. And so I appreciate the opportunity to be interviewed by you for your widely read blog, because I think your readers could be interested in nominations. This National Inventor of the Year award sponsored by the Intellectual Property Owners Education Foundation is the oldest and largest award, or the oldest and best known, I’d say, of its kind. It’s in its 38th year. But we’re really redoubling our efforts to find the best inventors to publicize this year.
QUINN: How are you going about doing that? I understand that there’s an outreach to the patent bar specifically. And you’re looking not only honor the inventor but to honor the patent attorney or firm associated with the winning inventor, is that correct?
WAMSLEY: That’s correct. And that is a bit of a twist this year. Now, of course the inventors deserve the spotlight, but we thought it would be nice to identify and recognize the nominators who often are patent attorneys or inventor colleagues of the winners. And these people deserve a credit for taking the initiative to help identify the best inventors. So we plan to invite the nominators to the award ceremony and give them some recognition in the printed program and so forth.
QUINN: Now, last year I know you held this event in June. And Judge Michel received a special honor. And this year I see the event is scheduled for December. Is there a reason for the change in the date?
WAMSLEY: It was a scheduling matter. This year the IPO Education Foundation is putting on a special international judges’ conference which is being held in Brussels, Belgium from May 23 to May 25. And I might say that if any of your readers are going to be in Europe next week, there’s still an opportunity to register for that conference.
But that is a big event with 70 judges and so it seemed that the Foundation with its limited resources and staff would be better off spreading out its major events over the year. Consequently, the Inventor of the Year Award and also the Distinguished IP Professional Award will be given at the ceremony on December 5th in Washington D.C.
QUINN: Do you know whether that’s going to be at the Smithsonian like it was last year? I thought that was just an absolutely wonderful venue you had last year.
WAMSLEY: I remember you were there. In fact, I believe you gave a report on that in your blog. And we appreciated that. It will probably be at one of the Smithsonian museums again this year. We haven’t nailed down the site. But the last three years we’ve had it at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, the Museum of American History, and before that the old patent office, National Portrait Gallery, which of course is a great venue.
QUINN: Yes, that’s a wonderful venue as well. That kind of an environment just seems so appropriate when what we’re trying to do is honor inventors who have gone well above and beyond what is contemplated by most people when they set out to invent.
Can you comment on the nominations you’ve been receiving? Does it look like this year is going to be a real exciting crowd, what types of nominations for what types of inventions is the IPO looking at this year? Are you interested in getting nominations from all across the spectrum? I know I’ve thrown a bunch out there so I’ll just let you go with it in whichever direction you might like.
WAMSLEY: The nominations are starting to come in. And of course the way this works, is the way we work on a lot of things. Most of the nominations tend to come in in the last couple of weeks. So we’re hoping to get quite a few more. I would say it’s a mix of nominations from independent inventors, university inventors, inventors within companies. We have some that are related to environment and energy savings, but nominations are coming in from across the board. One thing that distinguishes this award is part of the stated criteria is that the invention should have been commercialized recently. We’re looking for inventions that are in relatively new products or new methods and things that have hit the markets, and things that are happing now.
QUINN: So that would distinguish what IPO does from what the National Inventors Hall of Fame does, correct? The Hall of Fame looking more for the legacy great inventions. Sounds like you’re looking for the great inventions of the moment.
WAMSLEY: I think that’s a very good way of putting it, Gene. The National Inventors Hall of Fame, incidentally, is a great organization and we’ve cooperated with them over the years. But their mission is more looking for the great inventions of all time and often the inductees into the Hall of Fame made the inventions years earlier and I think it’s always a hard job judging what are the best inventions. But I think our judges have a challenge in trying to assess the important inventions when they’re recent. But we’ve had some excellent inventions and I’m sure that we will this year. But it’s a job getting the word out.
QUINN: Right. I can certainly appreciate that. And I’m glad you had some time to chat with me about this today. I do think it’s a very worthwhile opportunity for inventors to get recognition. To me it seems sometimes in the industry we lose sight of the fact that without great inventions and very dedicated innovators none of this would be possible. And so much of the job creation that we’re longing for can come from innovation. So it seems to me particularly appropriate to periodically take that step back and really recognize the folks who are on the front line.
WAMSLEY: I think that’s so true. We’ve been giving this National Inventor of the Year Award for 38 years now. And I believe it has helped achieve some recognition for inventors. But there’s a long way to go before we can have an American public that’s really educated, as you suggested, about the consequences of having good inventors, the impact on the national economy and improvement in life. I think that the Board of Directors of the IPO Education Foundation are now looking at ways to try to publicize the National Inventor of the Year winner beyond the patent community and the industrial research community. We need to find ways to get information about the winners into the national media. We’ve done some of that before, but I’d like to see it get to the point where the National Inventor of the Year and the inductees into the Hall of Fame get the same kind of publicity as the Academy Awards. Some people might think that’s a pipe dream. But I don’t think it should be. We need to get inventors on the map.
QUINN: Well, certainly it was not a pipe dream if you look at our past. And I don’t know whether you have any thoughts about this, but I don’t know where we took this wrong turn. It seems clear that when Thomas Edison was around everybody knew who Thomas Edison was. The old Patent Office was one of the oldest buildings in D.C. It was where President Lincoln had his second inaugural ball. And it was a building the British did not burn down when they burnt down Washington during the War of 1812. The old Patent Office also displayed the Declaration of Independence for several decades at one point in our history. And I just don’t know how we got from that tremendous esteem for innovation and patents and what they can do for our economy and respect for truly great inventors like Edison to where we are today. As you say, we really have to struggle to get those tremendous stories out for public consumption.
WAMSLEY: I couldn’t agree with that more, Gene. The old Patent Office building, I believe, was the most popular museum in Washington in the late 19th Century with its large collection of patent models. And of course when Edison was famous in the last 19th and early 20th Centuries he was possibly the best known individual in America. He was a national hero, and he was probably as famous as Lebron James today. But we somehow got our priorities a little out of order and we need to get back to where some of the current important inventors are recognized. For example, I believe you know Gary Michelson who is a well known inventor from Los Angeles known for medical devices. He’s a member of the Board of Directors of our Education Foundation. The Board of our parent association has Dean Kamen, the inventor of Segway and important medical devices. These individuals are tremendous contributors to society. But they’re not the best known people in society.
QUINN: I understand exactly what you’re saying. And it boggles my mind as to why that’s not the case. I don’t know that you can blame it on the Internet. People say that attention spans are shorter than ever, but is that really to blame? I don’t know. I guess I just wonder why invention and inventors aren’t the sexy story, interesting story that they used to be. Particularly with so many people working as researchers and inventors and so many individuals spending a lot of time working in their garage, going to local group meetings, trying to form businesses. The message has gotten lost. I’m really excited that the IPO continues to do this with the National Inventor of the Year Award because I think we need to do more of this moving forward.
What do you have in store for the winner? Is there going to be media availably for that person? Is there going to be press releases? What do you think about what you have in store?
WAMSLEY: There will be media availability and press releases. As you said, in recent years we’re trying to have the event in a nice interesting venue. We will be inviting members of the national media to the dinner. We’ll also be putting more emphasis on inviting people from Capitol Hill, the Washington community. And for the last four years another added feature to help draw attention to this has been the award we’ve given to a member of the IP community, which we call the Distinguished IP Professional Award. As you mentioned earlier, last year this award went to Former Chief Judge Michel and the two years before that to other long time distinguished judges of the Federal Circuit. This year the Distinguished IP Professional, who has already been selected but cannot be announced yet, is someone who is a great friend of inventors, and known world wide in the intellectual property community. By putting on this kind of event we hope to get some synergistic action, if you will, that’ll draw attention to the inventors and the patenting process and the effect on the economy.
QUINN: What can you tell us about either the panel whose task was selecting the inventor of the year or the criteria that goes into the selection? Is there sort of a defined criteria or is the board going to meet and go over names and nominations and just through an ad hoc discussion allow the winning inventor to percolate to the top?
WAMSLEY: We do have criteria, and if your readers are interested in making a nomination, they should go to our website. They’ll find a link for a brochure that, it’s called “The Call for Nominations.” And it lists the general criteria, including that the invention had to originate in the United States, be covered by a U.S. patent, was commercialized recently, and has significant impact on society. The judges have some other criteria, broad criteria. Originality of the concept, ingenuity in brining the concept to commercialization, societal benefit, degree of commercial success. We have a screening committee that narrows them down. And then the Board of Directors of the foundation meets and considers the nominations. They try to judge the invention according to the criteria that I mentioned. I think an underlying objective is to select an individual or individuals who would epitomize American ingenuity. And to be winners that might catch the fancy of the media and the American public and get publicity for inventions.
QUINN: Okay, Herb, I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with me. And before we wrap up here, can you tell me one more time when is the deadline forgetting the nominations in?
WAMSLEY: The deadline, Gene, is June 1st. Which may seem like an early deadline given that we’re not going to give the award until December 5, but we need to get the nominations in by June 1st in order to have time to make the selection and to develop the play for national publicity for the award. As I indicated, you can find, or nominators can find the criteria on our website. The requirements are not burdensome. We do require a brief write up of the invention, of course; a copy of the United States patent; and a biography of the inventor. That’s basically it. If the judges need additional information they’ll come back to the nominators. And I think often our nominators have been patent attorneys from law firms and companies, and I hope that if those kinds of individuals read about this in your column, they will think about who their clients and their colleagues are who might be deserving of this award. Sometimes a potential winner is someone you know and you just need to think about the fact that they’ve come up with something that could be a real winner.
QUINN: Okay. Well, I will get the word out because I can’t think of a more worthy goal for us to pursue than to get recognition for some really deserving inventors. And, again, thanks a lot. And good luck with the conference you have next week and safe travels back to the U.S.
WAMSLEY: Thanks a lot, Gene.