Innovation is the lifeblood of the U.S. economy. Innovative industries power more than $8 trillion of U.S. GDP — one-third of our economy’s output — and support millions of jobs. But a substantial pool of innovative talent remains untapped, as women, people of color and low-income individuals are significantly underrepresented as patented inventors. In a recent study of women’s participation in patenting, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office reported that in 2016 women made up 28 percent of the science and engineering workforce but only 12 percent of patent-holding inventors.
Congress took note of these disparities and is starting to take action. In 2018, the Study of Underrepresented Classes Chasing Engineering and Science Success (SUCCESS) Act directed the USPTO, for the first time, to study the gaps in patenting for women and other underrepresented groups and to propose recommendations to encourage patenting among these populations.
The SUCCESS Act report, released last fall, confirmed what other researchers have already found: America’s innovation economy is hamstrung by the lack of diversity among inventors. Women, people of color and lower-income individuals patent inventions at significantly lower rates than their male, white, and wealthier counterparts. Only 20 percent of all U.S. patents today list a woman as an inventor. In a survey of inventors who filed patent applications between 2011 and 2015, African Americans and Hispanics represented only 0.3 percent and 1.4 percent of respondents, despite comprising 11.3 percent and 11.5 percent of the U.S. population respectively.
Patents allow inventors to control who uses their inventions for a limited time. The promise of exclusivity incentivizes inventors to engage in risky, resource-intensive research and development by allowing them to recover licensing fees that fund continued investments in innovation. Moreover, patents facilitate commercialization, collaboration, and follow-on innovation by creating an asset that can be bought and sold in the marketplace.
A diverse inventor population brings fresh ideas and perspectives to the innovation ecosystem, which allows us to solve new problems. For example, Jessica Matthews, the chief executive officer of Uncharted Play, invented a soccer ball that can harness energy and power lamps, inspired by a power outage during a family wedding in Nigeria. Today, Uncharted Play holds 15 patents for technology that can be installed in any device that “can harness kinetic energy,” such as baby strollers, floor panels and furniture. The SUCCESS Act report also found that more diverse patent teams lead to more frequently cited patents, which are viewed as higher quality.
Conversely, persistent disparities in patenting not only hurt individual inventors and would-be-inventors, it holds back our economy and our collective technological progress by leaving a massive amount of talent on the sidelines. According to Professor Lisa Cook at Michigan State University, diversifying our inventor corps would increase U.S. GDP per capita by between 0.6 percent and 4.4 percent.
The USPTO’s SUCCESS Act report proposes several policy changes to start to tackle this problem. For starters, the report recommends that Congress empower the USPTO to collect demographic data on applicants and recipients to better understand the gaps and to identify efforts to reduce them. A bipartisan group of members of Congress, including House Small Business Committee Chairwoman Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), along with Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), and Sens. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) have introduced the Inventor Diversity for Economic Advancement (IDEA) Act to answer this challenge. The measure would allow the USPTO to collect demographic data from patent applicants on a voluntary basis.
The USPTO also recommends that Congress expand the authorized uses of grants and funds from federal agencies, like the USPTO, Small Business Administration, and National Institutes of Health, to promote innovation and entrepreneurship, including patenting. Exposing youth to innovation through science and engineering education in early childhood, authorizing grants to fund the cost of obtaining a patent, and expanding programs that offer inventors volunteer legal assistance to lower the costs associated with patenting are other worthy recommendations.
These commonsense changes all help build a more diverse and vibrant innovation economy in the United States. With the necessary tools, policymakers can ensure that our innovation ecosystem works for all of us.
Holly Fechner is a partner at Covington & Burling LLP and previously served as policy director for Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).
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