You’ve probably heard of the wealth gap, but do you know about the patent gap? It’s the term used to describe the discrepancies in the makeup of inventors and patent holders. Just like other gaps, the patent gap is detrimental to our system. We need to increase the diversity and inclusivity of our innovation ecosystem and help more women, minority and low-income entrepreneurs patent and commercialize their inventions.
I was recently invited by Senator Patrick Leahy, Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to testify and offer suggestions at its hearing on Improving Access and Inclusivity in the Patent System. A slightly edited version of my remarks is below.
My background in patents
I’ve spent my career furthering innovation – starting with patents and now with startups. I’m an unusual combination of IP attorney, operator, founder, and investor.
For many years, I was the VP of Worldwide Intellectual Property at Cisco. When I was promoted to that position in 2005 there were so few women Chief Patent Counsels that it was front-page news. That led all seven of us to start a nonprofit called ChIPs, which is now the world’s largest organization for women in patent law with almost 4,000 members in 17 chapters worldwide. My ChIPs co-founder, Michelle Lee, was the first and still only woman, and the first and still only person of color, to serve as a Senate-confirmed Director of the PTO in its 219 year history. I then built up a startup called RPX that helps companies reduce and insure against patent risk. I’m also a member of the National Council for Expanding American Innovation.
Bringing diversity to venture capital
A few years ago, I actually invented something – the Collective Venture Model, which serves as the basis of my current startup, a venture fund called Operator Collective.
If you spend any time with startups, it’s not hard to notice the venture world revolves around venture capitalists and founders. Both homogeneous groups that are about 90% male, predominantly white, and 40% of whom went to Harvard or Stanford. But having been a founder, investor, and operator, I saw a huge missing piece: operators. Operators are those who are often not the founders, but the ones brought in to build and scale companies as they grow. They are not typically in the limelight, but the ones quietly working in the background.
So here are these wildly experienced operators who have exactly the right skill sets to help businesses grow and thrive, but they’re typically left out. Most people aren’t trying to exclude these operators, it’s just that the system was not built for people who give 150% to their day jobs and use any time leftover for their families.
I knew operators were the critical missing piece. And since the traditional model didn’t work for them, I created a new model that would, rebuilding it from the ground up to optimize for bringing in busy women operators. To do so, we added three things: education, accessibility, and representation.
- We knew women operators didn’t have ready access to the right information, so we created short, enjoyable programs.
- We knew a big hurdle was the cost of entry, so we created a sliding scale for financial participation. Another obstacle was time, so we made it flexible by crowdsourcing deals and diligence, and creating redundancies.
- We knew women are often criticized for self promoting, so we built a supportive community that does it for them.
In short, instead of making women conform to a rigid traditional construct, we changed the system to make it easier and more user friendly for women. Today, our $51M fund has over 130 operator investors who are 90% women and 40% people of color, over 70% of whom had never invested in venture before.
How this relates to patents and innovation
There are several parallels to the patent world. Data shows that “children born to parents in the top 1% of income are 10x more likely to become inventors than those born to families with below-median income,” and that whites are 3x more likely to become inventors as blacks. Women’s rate of patenting has increased from 2.7% to 10.8% in 40 years. (Assuming a consistent rate of increase, it would take 194 years to increase that to 50%.)
Securing a patent is complex, daunting, expensive. You have to learn a system that uses terms outside of everyday language. You need to dedicate time on top of your day job and family obligations. And you have to have the financial means to hire an attorney or agent.
The system wasn’t built for today’s would-be inventors who have countless other projects and obligations. If we want to capture the innovations that reflectrst-time inventors having to recreate the wheel just to know where to begin, we have to make it easier to understand. We also need outreach to underrepresented communities early and consistently.
- Second, we must make it more accessible in terms of access to resources. The America Invents Act added four satellite offices. A good start, but more would be better. Another idea is to revisit the USPTO’s patent pro bono program, potentially to have it apply to underrepresented groups with a traditionally low rate of patenting.
- Third, representation. Highlighting inventors from diverse backgrounds helps create a new normal. It’s always easier to do something when you s the contributions of all of America, we need to evolve the system. That includes the same three things: Education, access, and representation.
- First, education. Instead of fi
ee someone like you doing it already. This includes having a USPTO Director from an underrepresented background.
We cannot measure progress if we do not track our results
Finally, there is one fundamental piece that underlies this all, and it’s something the tech industry has been doing for years: data. The PTO is not permitted to track even the most basic demographic information, such as age or gender. Senator Hirono’s IDEA Act goes a long way toward ensuring this fundamental piece.
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