California’s first patent office on track for 2013 opening

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Downtown San Jose (Photo Credit: Nick Ta/Flickr)

Six months after the Economic Summit enjoyed its first major success with the announcement that the federal government would open its first-ever regional patent office in California, the initial high-fives have given way to long days of planning.

But along with the work comes a renewed confidence that the office will help small businesses in California innovate by speeding up the patent application process and heading off patent issues long before they become patent lawsuits. 

After a flurry of meetings throughout the fall that have included several days of presentations with David Kappos, director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the San Jose-area office is on track to open in 2013. It’s the right place and about time: Silicon Valley accounted for 12 percent of all patents registered nationwide in 2010.

The hiring process has already begun to bring in a staff of 150 patent examiners, and last month the office score a major coup, bringing on former Google lawyer Michelle Lee to be the office’s director. Lee was general counsel and head of patents at Google for most of the last decade. 

The next task will be familiar to the many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs expected to flood the office with patent ideas: Finding a 30,000 square foot space in the San Jose-Sunnyvale area. 

“The goal is still to open in 2013, no sooner than the summer,” said Emily Lam, senior director of health care and federal issues at the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, where she has helped spearhead the patent office application and planning process. SVLG is an important partner of the California Economic Summit’s Innovation Action Team, which has pushed for the new office as an important first step in improving the innovation environment for California businesses.

“It’s been a great start,” said Lam. “Within a week of the announcement, their team contacted us and was really serious about immediately getting into what the new office would look like and how it can best serve the community by greasing the wheels of innovation.” 

Kappos himself spent several days in October working with Silicon Valley business leaders on how the office can speed up the application process and help head off patent issues before they become lawsuits. He focused in particular on startups and smaller businesses that lack the resources to hire lawyers and fly back and forth to Washington for patent consultations. 

Smaller companies are expected to benefit greatly from easier access to patent expertise in their own backyard.

“We talked a lot about using the office as a way to do on-the-ground education in places where startups hangout, providing information on what they should be aware of when they’re inventing,” said Lam. “We want to help them think about what they’re doing earlier, rather than, you know, when they’re being sued.”

Kappos also met with some of Silicon Valley’s largest companies and has been careful to ensure conversations about the new office also include input from business leaders across the state. Lam has been heartened by the USPTO team’s desire to replicate the local culture so the office can be of most use to local businesses. 

“We don’t want to bring people from D.C. out here to review patents,” says Lam. “We hope they can hire people from Silicon Valley who know the mindset out here. There’s a unique ecosystem here, [and the examiners] need to be a part of it. They need boots on the ground who live and breathe the way people live here work. They totally get that.”

Good thing, too. California as a state accounted for 25 percent of the 30,080 patents granted in the U.S. in 2010. The U.S. patent office is currently sitting on more than 600,000 patent applications in its Alexandria, Virginia headquarters—a backlog the new regional office will aim to help alleviate. 

Let the innovation begin.


Justin Ewers

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