Apr 20, 201502:19 PMInside Wisconsin
with Tom Still
Patent director’s visit to Wisconsin underscores value of innovation economy
(page 1 of 2)
When computer scientist Michelle Lee joined Google as its first head of patent strategy, the company held a few dozen intellectual property grants. When she left eight years later, Google’s portfolio spanned 10,500 patents.
The patent explosion inside Google during Lee’s tenure there is emblematic of how much the U.S. economy relies on innovation — and how protection of intellectual property is essential to perpetuating that cycle.
It’s a principle Lee brought with her when she left California’s Silicon Valley to become the first woman to lead the 225-year-old U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
“As we look to our country’s future, the intangible property rights associated with an idea are of increasingly greater value,” Lee said during an April 15 visit to Madison, where she toured parts of the UW-Madison campus and met with academic researchers and others. “My background as an engineer, computer programmer, and in the business world informs my work every day.”
Lee’s visit to Wisconsin — part of a Midwest tour that has included other patent hot spots — came at a time when Congress is again debating how to streamline the U.S. patent system. That’s important in a world where competition is constant and innovation is no longer an exclusively American product.
It also underscored why major research universities such as UW-Madison are vital to the innovation economy, not only nationally but in the states and communities they serve.
During a public forum at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, Lee talked about the role of the federal patent office, congressional efforts to reform the patent system — a process renewed in 2011 with passage of the America Invents Act — and the increasingly diverse nature of intellectual property.
Her experience at Google was largely around innovation in information technology. But some of the questions she fielded in Madison centered on when and how patents can extend to the life sciences, where biotechnology, genetic engineering, and related disciplines push the envelope of invention.
In fact, even Lee was momentarily stumped when a UW-Madison student asked a question about the patent process for a particular synthetic cell, an idea that seemed fanciful only a few years ago. “I’ll have to think about that one,” she joked.
The impact of intellectual property from UW-Madison and other academic research institutions in Wisconsin is significant to the state economy. For 20 years or more, UW-Madison has ranked among the nation’s top five universities in research and development spending, with comparable status in production of patents and license revenues tied to those patents.