U.S. Patent official says Maine one of most innovative places in nation
By Matt Wickenheiser
ORONO, Maine — Maine has several advantages that could help the state develop its innovation-based economy, the head of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office said Wednesday morning.
Under Secretary of Commerce David Kappos spoke at the Invention to Venture conference, held at the Black Bear Inn and organized by the Target Technology Center. Roughly 120 people were in attendance, including students from the University of Maine and from the Maine Maritime Academy, faculty members, inventors, entrepreneurs and experts up and down the entrepreneurship food chain.
Kappos has a second home in the Rockport area, and said he’s been intimately familiar with Maine for about a decade.
“Mainers have a very special innovative capability that is as good or better than anywhere else I’ve been in the world,” said Kappos.
The state has a “terrific can-do attitude; people are natural problem-solvers,” said Kappos.
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After his talk, he pointed to big and small ventures that he’s seen Maine taking on. He noted the deep-water wind project that Professor Habib Dagher is working on at UMaine as an example of where “Maine innovation meets a huge problem — global energy consumption.” There’s a tremendous opportunity there, as well, said Kappos.
“It’s something Maine is leading, and quite appropriately so,” he said.
On the smaller scale, Kappos talked about the local craftsman who made furniture for his home, pieces that look fragile but are surprisingly sturdy.
“He should be filing patent applications,” said Kappos.
Another example is the businessman who built a custom dock system for his house, and created a stainless steel attachment that could handle all the various movements the dock would experience. People from other parts of the country have come to see how the piece was made.
“I just meet people constantly like this in Maine,” he said.
And beyond homegrown problem-solving skills, Maine attracts a lot of people who have honed their skills, made their fortunes and have retired to the state to live. That sort of gray-hair capital is missing in many other parts of the United States, Kappos said.
Those experts are a resource that should be tapped, he suggested; they can mentor small startups that are looking for expertise from successful businesspeople.
“It’s an unheralded advantage,” said Kappos.
During his talk, Kappos talked about the sizable backlog of patent applications that his office continues to process. There’s a bit more than 700,000 unexamined patent applications in the office, he said. It takes about 27 months before an inventor gets a “substantive response” from the office, and about 38 months before they get a final disposition. But the office also has several initiatives to get certain patent applications shunted to the top of the pile, he said. The “Green Tech Initiative” gives priority to patent applications that are related to the environment, aiding in alternative energy, energy use reduction, etc. If approved, inventors whose applications fit the profile get a response within about 45 days.
The office is working on a similar program for medical products, and for patent applications that may be made available to help humanitarian efforts, he said.
Kappos said his office was undertaking several initiatives to try to speed turnaround time. One is an investment in technology. Another is a program under review whereby inventors who pay additional fees will see their applications sped up, with a final answer within a year or less.
“Just like FedEx, if you want your package to get there overnight, you pay for it and they take care of it,” said Kappos.
Another is a massive hiring increase. The office plans to hire 1,300 people this year, and another 1,300 next year. Kappos made the pitch to students or professionals interested in becoming patent examiners. They don’t need to be lawyers, but must have a bachelor’s degree and a background in engineering, math, physics, computer sciences or the like.
And pending legislation will allow patent examiners to work from home, around the country, he said.
“You can actually be in your bunny slippers, working from your home in Maine, as a patent examiner,” Kappos said.
Following his talk, Kappos was set to spend most of his day at UMaine, touring the Advanced Structures and Composites Center, the Foster Center for Student Innovation and the Forest Bioproducts Research Initiative before meeting with university President Robert Kennedy.
Deb Neuman, director of the Tech Target Center, said Kappos’ talk illustrated how important innovation was to the U.S. and Maine economy. The purpose of the conference was to recognize that, and to help foster it, she said. There were various workshops, ranging from how to recognize good invention ideas to how to protect them. Numerous inventors also gave talks about their business path, she said.
“The real value of today is to try to inspire and encourage and to help guide and educate and inform,” said Neuman. “We have a lot of great resources and experts to help folks.”
A number of success stories were shared during the day, she said, such as the SteriPEN, an unltraviolet water purification system that was invented in Maine.
“You can do this in Maine,” she said. “SteriPEN has a worldwide market, and they’re in Blue Hill,” she said.