I recently had the opportunity to go on the record with Roberta Romano-Götsch, the chief operating officer of Mobility and Mechatronics at the European Patent Office (EPO). In a wide ranging, two-part interview we discussed the new technology areas at the EPO, autonomous driving, engineering education, examiner training, what quality means to the EPO and more.
As chief operating officer of one of the three technical areas at the EPO, Ms. Romano-Götsch has responsibility for leading 1,600 patent examiners, managers and administrative staff members in Munich and The Hague. In addition to leading Mobility and Mechatronics, she is also chair of the EPO’s Operational Quality Committee and has contributed to the implementation of the EPO’s quality management system, which was awarded ISO 9001 certification in 2014 and 2017.
Prior to becoming chief operating officer of the Mobility and Mechatronics technical area, Ms. Romano-Götsch served as principal director of vehicles, general technology, and handling and processing, and director of polymers. Indeed, during her 20 years at the EPO, she has worked in a broad range of chemical fields – including medicinal chemistry, pesticides, and cosmetics. Before joining the EPO, Ms. Romano-Götsch worked as a project manager at Procter & Gamble in Brussels. Ms. Romano-Götsch has a degree in chemistry from the Sapienza University of Rome and a PhD in organic chemistry from the Technical University of Munich.
The impetus for this interview is the upcoming EPO Automotive and Mobility Seminar, which will be held in Chicago, IL, immediately after the Intellectual Property Owners Association (IPO) 2018 Annual Meeting, on September 26-27, 2018. Romano-Götsch will be participating in this EPO program, providing a landscape and overview on the morning of September 26, as well as participating on a panel and providing closing remarks on September 27.
Without further ado, here is part one of my two-part interview with Roberta Romano-Götsch.
QUINN: Thank you, Roberta, for taking some time to chat with me today, I really appreciate you clearing your busy schedule to chat with me. I know the EPO has done some restructuring recently, and your title is Chief Operating Officer; can you give us an idea of what that means within the new EPO structure?
ROMANO-GÖTSCH: Thank you for dedicating time to the EPO for this interview. I’m very pleased to have this opportunity. As regards our structure: Until 2017 we had 14 separate clusters of technology at the EPO. In the past four or five years, however, we have seen smart technologies and connectivity expand into all the traditional areas of technology. In order for the EPO to remain agile and deliver better services to industry, we have restructured internally, grouping the technologies so as to mirror industry. This has resulted in three main sectors: one being Mobility andMechatronics, the sector I head as Chief Operating Officer; the other two being ICT, and Healthcare, Biotechnology and Chemistry. These three sectors reflect developments in industry. In Mobility and Mechatronics, we have some 1600 patent examiners and administrative staff in all,covering a broad range of mechanical and civil engineering fields – in particular automotive, mobility, aerospace, but also of course civil engineering. Because new technologies are pervading all these sectors, we need to have knowledge of them to properly examine patent applications. So it’s basically responding to developments in technology.
QUINN: Correct me if I’m wrong, because my understanding of how the EPO’s new structure is a little weaker than it probably should be, but I interviewed Grant Philpott some time ago, and he’s in charge of computer-implemented inventions, and then the third unit is more life sciences. So, if we were to try and understand the pillar that you run at the EPO, it would be everything else that is not life sciences and that would not be computer-implemented, correct?
ROMANO-GOTSCH: My sector deals with all that is mobility, so anything that involves the transport of goods or people from point A to point B; but also, civil engineering and thermodynamics. What’s more, computer-implemented inventions is not a technology that stands on its own.
QUINN: That was what I was thinking, because it bleeds over, right?
ROMANO-GÖTSCH: That’s right. In fact, in the past five years we’ve seen a real expansion of computer-implemented inventions in many areas, including mobility. A study the EPO published in December 2017 on patents and the fourth industrial revolution demonstrates this. In automotive, we estimate that more than 50% of patent applications now have computer-implemented invention content. So while computer-implemented invention core technologies are dealt with in the ICT sector headed by Grant, in my sector we also see an explosion of computer-implemented inventions and connected vehicles as these inventions are expanding into our more classical area.The convergence between conventional technologies and IT is a game-changer for both the car industry and for patent offices, as mobility innovations increasingly rely on software and artificial intelligence.
QUINN: I think it was a lot easier at the beginning of my career to think of patents in silos, and maybe I was just naïve, but I think it was easier a generation ago, to think of it that way. And today, it’s just not that easy.
ROMANO-GÖTSCH: You’re right, autonomous driving is in fact one of the fastest growing fields in mobility. While it still occupies a relatively small share of the increase in filings in mobility, it’s been growing exponentially in the past 10 years. It’s a real mixture of ICT and mechanics. What we see here is that innovation in automotive is driven by inventions related to smart environment and smart parts of vehicles coming from ICT. For the EPO, the challenge with these computer-implemented inventions in mobility patent applications is that we must be able to deal with mixed technology, and have our examiners trained to handle them within our sector.
QUINN: That was a question I wanted to ask you. How do you do that? Because you hire examiners to examine in a certain area, and increasingly it seems that almost any area where you hire examiners they have to have at least some facility with software.
ROMANO-GÖTSCH: Partly what we see is that the young generation of examiners has already covered these areas in their university studies. For the experienced examiners that have been on the job for quite a while already we have put in place an intensive training programme together with experts from our ICT area. This means that all our engineers in mobility and mechatronics are trained in computer-implemented inventions. We also have another powerful solution here at the EPO in the way we work: Every patent application is examined by a three-person division. For the really complex cases that require knowledge from ICT specialists, we can ensure that one of the three members of the division comes from that sector.
QUINN: This is maybe a little bit far afield, but what is the typical profile of an examiner in your area? And I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you were looking to hire a new examiner, what degree would they have? I ask because sometimes I get questions from young students asking: “I’m interested in going to college and I want to set myself up for a career,” and so forth. So, what engineering discipline is the best, do you think, today? What disciplines are the ones that are going to dominate?
ROMANO-GÖTSCH: That’s a very good question. The areas of mechanical engineering, but also civil engineering, are certainly among the most pertinent fields for us. Another major plus – and something we look for specifically – is for candidates to have some courses in artificial intelligence, data, or computer science.
QUINN: So, do you think the way the world is going in the engineering and innovation space, that it almost is better for engineers to have a broad based experience, rather than the hyper narrow experience that it seems colleges were getting into for a period of time?
ROMANO-GÖTSCH: Yes, definitely. We clearly see that technologies are evolving extremely fast. Take the well-established car industry, for example, which has been a very solid industry, and somewhat quiet and traditional. In terms of patents, applicants used to have a relatively predictable way of filing, and a five-year product cycle. But in the past two or three years the landscape has changed completely. We observe the surge of new players, disrupting the industry. These are the new kids on the block, with a different patent strategy, a much faster product cycle, different coverage, and a different type of technology. Connectivity expanding into traditional mechanics– take Uber for example, or Waymo. So our examiners need to be able to keep up with these new technologies. Computer science as a component in their training is certainly an advantage. We don’t go as far as to say they need to understand blockchain, because that would require a degree in cryptography, for example. But they need to be in a frame of mind that allows them to be agile and move from one field to another and adapt to new trends.
QUINN: Yeah, and it’s interesting you say that, because I think there’s always going to be certain areas where you’re going to need that hyper-experienced knowledge base. Another area that comes to mind right now would be quantum computing, which probably requires not any one person but two or more people to do complicated patent applications. You need a physics person and you need computer person and finding one person who possesses all the knowledge can be extremely difficult.
Listening to you talk, something I’ve been thinking about is becoming more crystalized. You’re starting to see players go outside of their lane. By that, what I mean is, in the software area you would see Google, Apple, Samsung, go into areas traditionally occupied by banks and offering credit, Apple Pay, those kinds of services. And in the auto space, you see companies that never have created an automobile. Tesla’s trying to become a car company, and they’re having their struggles. They have tremendous technology, but they’re having some struggles actually getting cars on the road. But all these new companies out there are trying to get into the auto space with great, new, exciting technologies, that in years past, you would never have seen that. So, when you were saying, I don’t know exactly how you put it, sort of like the auto spaces used to be a mature industry, and it’s not now. The automotive industry is almost an immature industry today with these new technologies. It’s an exciting time, I suppose.
ROMANO-GÖTSCH: Definitely. It seems for instance that applicants have different patent strategies in the fast-growing field of autonomous driving. Here, their patent strategy is more global: they seek to protect their inventions in more countries than the car industry players usually do, and they file much more frequently with the EPO. So the pattern is different.
QUINN: Do you know why that is, having talked with some of the stakeholders?
ROMANO-GÖTSCH: We are doing some studies to look into this in more detail, but one reason may be that companies involved in autonomous and connected cars operate more like ICT companies, whotraditionally file more with the EPO.
QUINN: So, they’re almost treating it like it’s a smart phone.
ROMANO-GÖTSCH: Exactly, which is why autonomous cars are often called “smartphones on wheels”.
QUINN: Yeah. You know, it’s funny, I have a friend who’s a patent attorney, and he says right now, the cars are hotspots, and we spend so much time learning that you’re not supposed to be using your smartphone in your car, and now the cars are hotspots. A little ironic.
ROMANO-GÖTSCH: Yes, but this is exactly the direction we’re headed.
QUINN: I don’t know whether you make predictions, I certainly wouldn’t ask you to do anything about a particular company, but I wonder about autonomous driving and how soon we’re really going to see it, and whether or not it really is something that is achievable unless and until you get near 100% buy-in. Because if you have some cars out there that are not smart cars, and driven by real people, mixing with cars that are driven by computers, I don’t know how that works. And then I also worry about the lag factor. I have a Mac setup, so it’s the spinning wheel of death, and for people that use PCs, it’s the hourglass thinking. When you’re driving a car, that’s just not acceptable even for a split second. So, I wonder how far away we really are. I know you see the cutting-edge stuff coming in to the Office. Do you have any guesses to when this is going to be a reality?
ROMANO-GÖTSCH: Well, that’s a very difficult question. All I can say is that we regularly visit applicants and we see that they’re making substantial progress. Autonomous driving is one area, but self-driving planes, or flying cars are equally relevant. I don’t think we are that far off from the self-driving car.
CONTINUE READING… in part two of our interview we continue to discuss the coming autonomous driving technological revolution, as well as EPO outreach activities, including the upcoming EPO Automotive and Mobility Seminar that will be held in Chicago, IL, on September 26-27, 2018.