Patent director’s visit to Wisconsin underscores value of innovation economy
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.
For 90 years the management of intellectual property on the Madison campus has been largely handled by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF). It’s where university inventions by faculty and others are disclosed, patent and trademark applications are filed when appropriate, license agreements are negotiated, and ideas are often transferred from the lab bench to the marketplace.
Since 1993, WARF has licensed more than 125 UW-Madison faculty startup companies and directly invested nearly $40 million in some of those firms. That’s in addition to the costs associated with managing, licensing, and occasionally defending the patents themselves. A subsidiary of WARF, the WiSys Technology Foundation performs the same function for other UW System campuses except UW-Milwaukee, where intellectual property is managed through the UWM Research Foundation.
The framework provided by U.S. patent law means organizations such as WARF can support research and development on R&D campuses, recycling a portion of revenues from licensing agreements to keep the pipeline of ideas filled. A recent report by WARF noted it has provided $2.3 billion in cumulative direct grants to UW-Madison; more than $400 million in patenting, licensing, and commercialization support; and $300 million to faculty inventors over time.
“Direct and indirect support to the university since WARF’s inception exceeds the present value of WARF’s endowment,” the report noted.
Although not without its flaws, the safeguards provided by the U.S. patent system have helped inventors produce and protect 9 million patents since 1790. Keeping that innovation engine oiled and fueled should be an economic priority for federal and state policymakers alike.
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