The USPTO Green Tech Program: Guidepost for the Future

Wayfinder Digital conducted the first independent, in-depth analysis of the USPTO’s Green Technology Pilot Program, the Office’s program to accelerate the examination of certain “green” technology patent applications to “accelerate the development and deployment of green technology, create green jobs, and promote U.S. competitiveness in this vital sector.” Applications meeting program requirements received expedited examination without having to pay the usual fees.

The green tech program offers patent practitioners unique insight into the impact of accelerated examination programs and key metrics in a designated science and technology domain — patent pendency; participation — who benefits and participates; and the outcomes of the program in terms of the scope and breadth of the new inventions it creates. It also provides a useful framework going forward in light of the new authority under Section 25 of the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act which empowers the Director of USPTO to designate certain technology to be economically important and initiate new accelerated examination processes — “for prioritization of examination of applications for products, processes, or technologies that are important to the national economy or national competitiveness without recovering the aggregate extra cost of providing such prioritization.” Green technology is expected to continue to be an important area in science and technology patents as the Obama Administration implements its enhanced second term focus on climate change, natural resources and environmental policy. A continued focus on the accelerated examination of green technology patents is expected.

The Green Technology program has taken on a new importance. Clean tech represents a major element in the economics and pubic debate over federal funding of research and development. The recent spate of high profile company failures — companies that received billions of dollars in loan guarantees and financial incentives and tax credits at state and federal levels — have caused a deceleration in funding of green technology ventures and a new dialog on whether these innovations are market ready and strong enough to succeed in the marketplace without such support.

A Snapshot of Program Results

Here is some of what we found when we looked at the first round of 836 patents granted through the end of the period for submission of patent applications:

  • Inventors from 22 countries and 40 states participated.
  • Wind energy inventions received the most patents.
  • General Electric Company was the top assignee.
  • Energy patents account for the largest proportion of program grants (69%).
  • Wind turbine technology comprised one-quarter of all the patents issued.
  • The majority of transportation patents were for internal combustion engine technology.
  • Sixty-five percent (65%) of the industry index patents are for bioengineering or chemical engineering technologies.
  • Green tech patents were evenly spread across all of the technology centers.
  • Average pendency for patents granted under the program was 19.7 months.

There is a surprising array of inventions and patents granted under the program but many represented improvements to “traditional” technologies rather than technologies found exclusively in patent domains considered “green”. USPTO’s initial list of patent classes that qualified for the program and public policy initiatives for “clean tech vehicles” fed expectations that accelerated examination would result in new inventions in electric and hybrid vehicles. Inventions in transportation focused on improvements in internal combustion engines. Wind patents focused on the process of building and maintaining wind infrastructure including blades, generators, and monitoring equipment rather than just on improvements to the key components of wind turbines. “Young Guns” companies, new and emerging entrepreneurial firms that are disproportionally responsible for economic growth and new market, accounted for 35% of the firms receiving patents under the program.

The program originally required applications to fall within designated classifications under four main categories: 1) Alternative Energy Production; 2) Energy Conservation; 3) Environmentally Friendly Farming; and, 4) Environmental Purification, Protection, or Remediation — a very limiting initial set of categories for program participation.

Our analysis revealed that after USPTO enabled inventors to explain why their invention deserved special handling under the program, inventors defined a significantly broader array of technologies that contribute to meeting the green technology objectives of the program. For patent practitioners, exploring the statements firms wrote in the summary of the invention and the petitions to make special provide a roadmap to how to craft future applications for accelerated green tech patent application prosecution.

Aside from the expected complement of patents for nacelle components for wind turbines, the program included a patent granted to Tesla for enhancing the driving experience of electric vehicles, bolt and door inventions for accelerating the manufacturing and construction of wind turbines, sunscreen for produce, and a patent that uses the technology to cool semiconductors to improve the heat distribution and energy use in commercial cookware.

In upcoming articles I will include highlights of our analysis of the key domains — Energy, Transportation, Industry, Water, Air, and Agriculture, review some of the notable inventions and trends in the results of the program, and look at the state of green tech patents outside of the program.



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Join the Discussion

One comment so far.

  • [Avatar for Stan E. Delo]
    Stan E. Delo
    February 5, 2013 05:01 pm

    Hello Michael-

    I find your report to be very interesting, because I very nearly applied for consideration of being included in the accelerated examination program they were offering initially. There are a few reasons that I chose not to however, mostly having to do with the nature of my invention, and that I was not seeking to get patent rights outside of the US.

    My first concern was that it required mandatory 18-month publication, and neither I or my very well informed patent agent could figure out how *accelerated* the application would be if accepted. Instead we elected to go in the traditional manner, where it was still possible to request non-publication at 18 months, since I am not seeking foreign patent rights.

    The instant invention that I am referring to is for a new type of wind turbine control system, which does not need any sort of electronic components at all, outside of a direct drive permanent magnet generator to harness the wind energy. It will also reduce the loads on the rotors, allowing much lighter components to be used at a significant cost savings for both manufacture and installation.

    If the concept were to be published at 18 months, it would have given overseas manufacturers more than a year to tool up and go after the small wind turbine market here in the US, before I had any possibility to stop them with a valid US patent. Somewhat different than the incremental improvements you mention, which I have been following pretty closely. Perhaps it is time to do another publication search again, just to make sure that I am not missing something. It has been about 20 months since we applied, and still no signs of any activity from the USPTO.

    Best regards,