The United States Patent and Trademark Office held the first ever Cleantech Partnership Initiative meeting today in the Madison Building on the campus of the USPTO in Alexandria, Virginia. What is a “partnership initiative”? The Patent and Trademark Office has had these types of “partnerships” in other areas, such as in the biotechnology area, for some time. They are intended to provide a forum where industry can share concerns and information, including both patenting–related aspects and technology-related aspects. They are also for establishing contacts for technical training programs for examiners and helping applicants better understand the Patent Office. The goal is to hopefully lead to better filed and prosecuted applications and better issued patents. The focus of this partnership initiative is Clean Technologies, which Bruce Kisliuk (Assistant Deputy Commissioner for Patents) pointed out was in keeping with the Obama Administration desire to foster clean, green tech.
Frankly, I didn’t know what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised and left the session realizing that there is hope on the horizon for clean technologies to power the U.S. and global economies. How quick we will get there is anyone’s guess, but great strides are being made already and it seems there is hope for meaningful clean, green technologies to contribute significantly to our energy future at some point during the 2020 to 2030 time frame. For those looking for a silver bullet or quick fix to $4 to $5 per gallon gasoline, this time frame doesn’t provide much relief, but it is on the horizon no doubt. I am just glad that the relevant time frame is during my reasonable life expectancy. Of course, other forms of energy will need to be the answer in the short term, but with the Patent Office and private sector in cooperation to streamline these patent applications to get early stage technologies funded and to market I can see for the first time a path to a clean technology future.
Before turning over the podium to the speakers, Bruce Kisliuk explained that one of the problems with dealing with, or at least identifying, green technologies is that there is no accepted definition of what is a green, or clean, technology. To give us an idea of the types of technologies that find their way to the Patent Office he focused on the field of nanotechnology and then searched for those technologies that could also be characterized as green, and he provided the following chart:
At the conclusion of Kisliuk’s introduction he turned the podium over to Jacqueline Stone, who is Director of TC 1600. She discussed the Green Technology Pilot Program, which provides special status to applications in the program to advance out of turn for initial examination or accorded special status in any appeal to the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences. The program, amended several times already, will run until December 31, 2011 or until 3,000 petitions have been granted. As of April 4, 2011, 1,595 petitions had been granted. Some 1,001 petitions had been dismissed, 195 petitions denied, 310 petitions were awaiting decision and 250 patents have issued to green technologies accelerated under this pilot program. Of those petitions that had been dismissed the overwhelming majority were dismissed because the petition was missing the required materiality statement or the petition did not include publication fee, both of which are obviously easy errors to avoid.
Of particularly note, Stone explained that the Technology Centers are currently deciding all Green Technology petitions, and the goal is for an initial decision to be rendered within two weeks of petition receipt date. Currently petitions are decided in approximately 3 weeks from the petition filing. Stone also explained that the Office may extend the pilot program either with or without modifications, include more than 3,000 granted petitions or make the program permanent. Any extension will be announced by the USPTO via a written notice.
Not being one with much, if any, knowledge about biology or chemistry I really didn’t follow the presentation given by Neil Feltham, Senior Patent Counsel for DuPont, and Dr. Mark Emptage, also of DuPont. It sounded interesting indeed, and my inability to follow was as a result of my own lack of expertise in the area Dupont is working in, but as an electrical engineer talk of new battery technology and electric cars was right up my alley. So the presentation that gave me a different opinion toward clean, green energy was the presentation by William Elias, the General Counsel for Argonne National Laboratory.
I have long believed that the next breakthrough, paradigm shifting technology will be battery technology. Unfortunately, even given all the excellent research and development that is ongoing in the U.S., much funded by venture capitalists (over $200 million last year) and the Federal Government through research conducted at Argonne National Laboratories and other federal labs, the energy density for the lithium ion battery is still a factor of 10 away from the energy density of gasoline. Progress is being made and new lithium derivative batteries are being tested and showing some promise, although they are a long way away from the energy density of gasoline, but there is a path forward, “a technology road map in place,” as Elias explains. Elias also explained the future doesn’t belong, metaphorically, to those scientists who are working on technologies of today, but rather to those scientists who figure out what is next and build upon the technologies of today moving forwarding into the 2020s, 2030s and beyond.
Why was I so encouraged? Elias explained that General Motors and Chrysler are each looking to hire 1,000 engineers, and Ford is looking to hire 750 engineers. Additionally, manufacturing facilities for lithium ion batteries are being built right here in the United States of America, and by 2020 the United States should have the capacity to product 40% of the lithium ion batteries build worldwide. This is a great story indeed!
Recently I just finished reading an advance copy of Great Again, Revitalizing America’s Entrepreneurial Leadership, which will be available June 7, 2011. Everyone interested in patents, innovation, technology, job creation or entrepreneurship should read this book! I will write more about it in the future, but the book provides a road map to making America great again and revitalizing the U.S. economy through thoughtful innovation policies, including patent policies, tax policies and bringing back manufacturing the the United States. So when I heard high-tech batteries are being manufactured in the United States my interested immediately was peeked.
What we all know in the industry is that once you invent something or prove the concept there are a great many things that will need to be discovered and developed from that point to the point where a useful product or service can be marketed. Through myopic innovation policies our leaders have been content to allow manufacturing jobs to be exported, and along with it intellectual property has been exported in massive quantities. Great Again explains the obvious, but something probably most haven’t thought about. The initial intellectual property is nice, but if you manufacture it outside the United States then the follow-on intellectual property, scientific advances, discoveries and breakthroughs are not going to be owned in the U.S., but rather will be owned by those making those advances, discoveries and breakthroughs overseas during the manufacturing process.
The fact that we are building manufacturing capacity for advanced batter technologies here in the United States gives me great hope. Yes, we are a long way away, but if you don’t take the first step you never get there. We need to keep our foot on the accelerator regarding clean, green technologies at the same time that we scurry for short-term energy solutions to provide relief at the pump. Relief at the pump will help this extremely sluggish recovery to plod along, but we all too often lose focus when prices at the pump decline. While I think our short-term energy policy is rather ridiculous, our long-term policy is right on track. If anything we need to double down to make sure we prevail.