“The systemic issues faced by minorities in the patent commercialization system for decades has not only created but continued to sustain the diversity gap. How can we expect to increase diversity in patenting and commercialization if historically the system has not been built for minorities to participate or succeed in general?” – Janeya Griffin
The House Small Business Committee met earlier today for a hearing titled “Enhancing Patent Diversity for America’s Innovators,” in which members of Congress heard from witnesses on ways to improve the sizeable patenting gap that exists for women, minorities and low-income individuals. As of 2016, less than 20% of U.S. patents listed one or more women as inventors, while under 8% listed a woman as the primary inventor; only six patents per million people were attributed to African American inventors; and children born to high income families are ten times more likely to obtain a patent than children from below median income families, said Committee Chairwoman, Representative Nydia Velázquez (D-NY).
The Committee’s Ranking Member Steve Chabot (R-OH) introduced the Study of Underrepresented Classes Chasing Engineering and Science (SUCCESS) Act in 2018 to “direct the United States Patent and Trademark Office, in consultation with the Administrator of the Small Business Administration, to study and provide recommendations to promote the participation of women, minorities, and veterans in entrepreneurship activities and the patent system.” A key finding of that study was that there simply isn’t enough publicly available data to guide and support legislation that will foster inclusive innovation, said Velazquez. For that reason, Velazquez introduced the Inventor Diversity for Economic Advancement Act
(IDEA Act) with Senator Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI), Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC), and Congressman Steve Stivers (R-OH) last year. That bill seeks to direct the USPTO “to collect demographic data – including gender, race, military or veteran status, and income level, among others – from patent applicants on a voluntary basis.”
Provide On-Ramps and Address Cost
The witnesses at today’s hearing included Andrea Ippolito of W.E. Cornell, a program at Cornell University that helps women to navigate the innovation and commercialization processes. Ippolito reiterated the grim statistics: women make up just 12% of all patented inventors, which means that if the current trend continues, “it will take an estimated 116 years to reach gender parity in patenting,” Ippolito said. Meanwhile, “if women, minorities and low-income individuals were to invent at the same rate as white men from high income households, the rate of innovation in America would quadruple,” she added.
While the number of women in STEM programs is increasing, these numbers have failed to translate to patenting. “The real gap comes from the rate of women involved in patent- intensive fields like electrical and mechanical engineering,” said Ippolito, since 85% of patents go to private industry. “More women seek patents in the academic sector than private industry. It’s a vicious cycle; lack of women in these fields mean a lack of mentors, role models and sponsors.”
A major factor in achieving parity in patenting is addressing cost, according to Ippolito. The cost of obtaining a patent can range from $5,000 to $20,000, depending on the complexity of the technology involved, and that cost “almost always falls directly on the inventor” in the case of individual inventors, said Ippolito. The burden is even heavier for women due to the gender wage disparity and lack of access to venture capital or seed stage investment, and because women continue to bear disproportionate responsibility for child rearing. Women point to childcare costs as a key barrier to patenting, whereas male academics actually increase patent activity with parenthood, according to Ippolito’s research.
Ultimately, Ippolito made three recommendations to the Committee:
- The federal government should consider directing resources to establishing programs that provide on-ramps dedicated to increasing women and minority exposure to the patent and commercialization process. These resources should be directed to sectors in which women are currently pursuing patents, such as the academic sector, as well as to bringing women into patent intensive fields. The Small Business Administration and the USPTO should create a joint initiative to create funds for on-ramp programs focused on women and minorities.
- These programs should be feeders to existing entrepreneurship initiatives in the communities, universities, or region.
- Address the cost of applying for a patent. Tailored programs and initiatives should consider specific funding for patent support to cover the cost of applying and hiring counsel.
The Importance of Data
Dr. Rashawn Ray of the Brookings Institution and Associate Professor of Sociology and Executive Director of the Lab for Applied Social Science Research at the University of Maryland College Park, emphasized the importance of collecting demographic data in advancing policy. “A lack of demographic data leads to bad science, does a disservice, and inhibits the United States’ ability to continue to be innovative and comprehensive,” said Ray. He added that a lack of data might lead to misallocation or misplacement of funds and stressed the importance of documenting regional patterns in addition to other types of demographic data. “Geography becomes a key metric,” said Ray. “Zip code is often used as a proxy for income, wealth and race; a proxy can be just as detrimental as not collecting information.”
The Root of the Problem
Janeya Griffin of The Commercializer, who manages and sells NASA’s IP, focused on the more deeply rooted, systemic obstacles facing underrepresented groups. She said that lack of education, lack of resources, and lack of access are the three biggest reasons minority entrepreneurs fail to receive patents. Griffin explained that her road to success came with the help of a government program geared to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) that has since been defunded. “Black inventors receive six patents per million people compared to 235 of their white counterparts,” said Griffin, who said role models such as Marion Croak, a black woman who holds over 200 patents, should be highlighted and elevated. “The diversity gap is not just an inclusion issue, it’s an exposure to generational wealth through patent commercialization and access issue,” Griffin said. She continued:
For decades, our country’s laws have placed minorities in positions where they’ve had to choose their life over their IP, even at one point being considered property themselves. Economist Dr. Lisa Cook discusses the correlation of declining minority patents during the Jim Crow and Race Riot era, having lost over 1,000 patents. 100 years prior, in 1710, the Meritorious Manumission Act of Virginia gave slave owners the right to grant their slaves freedom in exchange for their inventions. Hence the systemic issues faced by minorities in the patent commercialization system for decades has not only created but continued to sustain the diversity gap. How can we expect to increase diversity in patenting and commercialization if historically the system has not been built for minorities to participate or succeed in general? Why not fund more certificate programs like the one I went through? If we’re truly focused on increasing diversity of patents we must invest in education, access and equity at the highest level in the most marginalized communities.
Programs in Progress
The final panelist was Rick Wade of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who said that while the statistics are a concern, they are also an opportunity, since minority communities have higher shares of women-owned enterprises. The USPTO recently updated its homepage with local resources to assist inventors and will launch a council this year for innovation and inclusiveness to develop a national strategy for promoting and increasing participation of underrepresented groups, said Wade. The Office is also working with other departments to develop training materials to help elementary, middle and high school teachers to incorporate the concepts of invention and IP creation into classrooms. Wade further noted the various legislative recommendations in the SUCCESS Act report released last year, including Congress potentially authorizing a biennial survey of individuals named in patent applications and expanding the authorized uses of grants and funds to include activities that promote innovation and entrepreneurship. The Chamber has also stepped up its efforts in this area, said Wade, through programs such as the Next-Gen Business Partnership with HBCUs.
The Broader Issues
Representative Tim Burchett (R-TN) asked the panelists if they’d encountered many minority and small inventors who had complained about having their inventions stolen by larger companies. Griffin and Ippolito said they had, anecdotally, and Ippolito mentioned the Inventor Rights Act, which was introduced in December by Representatives Danny Davis (D-IL) and Paul Gosar (R-AZ). If passed, the bill would give inventors who own their own patents the ability to opt out of validity trials held at the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB).
Those commenting in real time on the hearing’s live stream page seemed to agree that this was one of the major deterrents to patenting for them. Nekita Sisk commented “My biggest fear is creating an idea and having a big company (I work/ worked for big companies) steal my tech idea.” Jeff Hardin, who has been active in the SUCCESS Act hearings and on the Inventor Rights Act, said that “big companies WILL STEAL your idea in today’s patent system…. They will INVALIDATE your patent.”
The VC Vortex
Another major stumbling block for underrepresented groups is access to venture capital funding. Velazquez noted that “today, 2.2% of venture capital is received by women and under 3% of Blacks and Latinos were VC-backed founders.” Additionally, women hold less than 20% of U.S. tech jobs and only 5% are in leadership at tech companies, while African Americans hold less than 15% and Latinos 14%.
Wade explained these numbers in part by noting the obvious: investors are attracted to patents, and minorities seem largely unable to get patents. Griffin cited a statistic showing that there is a 53% increase in chances of securing VC funding with one’s first patent. The Chamber is working on mentor protégé programs to build relationships between VCs and innovators from minority communities, Wade said.
Ippolito added that VCs “are overwhelmingly white males” who say they get to know entrepreneurs through introductions. “If you’re not embedded in these networks you can’t get an introduction or funding,” Ippolito said. Furthermore, the VC pitching process has been optimized for men. In one example, a researcher looked at male versus female entrepreneurs and recorded their voice with the exact same content for VCs, and the men were consistently seen as a more attractive investment.
More Must Be Done
Finally, Representative Jared Golden (D-ME) highlighted problems with language barriers and lack of translation services. Maine has seen sizeable growth in first-generation Somali immigrants and asylum seekers who own small businesses, but because of a language gap often cannot access the resources they need. Golden asked if the USPTO had translation services for non-English speaking patent applicants, but none of the panelists were aware of any.
“Clearly, more must be done to address diversity,” Velazquez said.
Join IPWatchdog in Dallas on March 17 during CON2020 in a panel titled The Gender Gap: Addressing STEM Education, Funding & Inventorship, where we will delve further into these issues.