For the United States Patent and Trademark Office, innovation is a way of life. Each day, thousands of patent applications flood in from inventors looking to change the world, and it is the USPTO's responsibility to process these advancements. While countless ideas are extremely innovative, and could prove beneficial to society at large, some rise above the fold and push the boundaries of what was once believed impossible. It is because of this that the USPTO launched Patents for Humanity, an innovation competition that awards inventors with public recognition and accelerated services at the USPTO to pursue their developments for the betterment of mankind. Now in its second year, the competition has awarded advancements in Medicine, Nutrition, Household Energy and Clean Technology. Winners for this years competition will be announced on April 20th at an award ceremony in Washington, DC.

I sat down with Michelle Lee, Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and we discussed innovation, Patents for Humanity, and why this is such an important project.

Name / Position / Company
Michelle Lee / Director / United States Patent and Trademark Office
Also the United States Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property

Why does the USPTO host an innovation contest?

Time and again history shows the profound impact that one good idea can have on human beings, our world, and our way of life. Patents for Humanity encourages the use of patented technologies to help alleviate poverty and suffering around the world. We want to showcase the laudable work of patent owners to address 21st century challenges and demonstrate how patents help build a better world.

How has innovation changed the way you do business?

The USPTO is the nation's innovation agency. New technologies and new industries pass through our doors every day. We strive to apply the same innovative spirit to our own operations. Patents for Humanity is an example of that--a unique program that leverages government services to provide low-cost, high-value rewards to recipients.

We continue to look to the public for inspiration. As innovation and economic progress have made the world increasingly connected, more and more industries are realizing that their technologies can improve lives everywhere. New models are emerging that prove that helping the less fortunate can go hand in hand with commercial markets, and that the base of the pyramid presents new market opportunities for those with vision to pursue them. Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, patent owners can serve the underserved and raise standards of living through mutually beneficial arrangements.

How has technological change helped foster a better world and improve people's lives?

We've seen great strides in a variety of areas, from medicines for HIV and malaria, diagnostics for tuberculosis and implants for broken bones, and better nutrition from staple crops like rice and sorghum to technologies to deliver clean water, solar lighting, and safe medications to remote areas and tools to help researchers find better treatments for rampant diseases. In all of these areas, Patents for Humanity winners are working to make the world safer, healthier, and more productive.

How many applicants do you typically receive?

We've run the program twice and received around 70 applications on average.

How are the categories decided? Do they vary year to year?

We want the program to recognize a broad range of technologies that improve people's lives. Categories are a way to emphasize areas of need and align with the President's development agenda, which includes the Feed the Future and Power Africa initiatives.

Have you ever received an application and immediately thought, this could change the world?

All the time. One of the great things about this program is seeing all the wonderful ideas people have that can have a powerful impact on the lives of the less fortunate. The truth is there's no shortage of great ideas--the tough part is following through. As with commercial technologies, many innovative technologies with potential to change the world never make it from idea through design, prototyping, manufacture, and distribution to reach those in need.

Are there any applicants that didn't win whose advancements deserve recognition?

The program is very competitive. We can only recognize so many projects, and commendable ones do sometimes get left out--but I see that as an opportunity for those projects to improve and hopefully be recognized in future years.

In your opinion, what's the greatest result of Patents for Humanity so far?

It's inspired a lot of people. The amazing stories of our winners have garnered a lot of attention. We get inquiries all the time from inventors in the early stages, hoping to follow our winners' examples and improve the world. The level of interest in helping humanity has been very inspiring.

What lesson do you have for young innovators/inventors?

That anyone can change the world. Some of our winners started with nothing more than a dream, and made a tremendous impact with few resources and a very small team. But having a great idea is just the start. It takes lots of perseverance to turn that idea into a delivered product.

What kind of acceleration can winners expect?

It varies by technology and the type of proceeding. For a new patent application, we strive for a final disposition within 12 months, while the average across all technologies is currently 26.9 months. So you're saving over a year of processing time on average--though, again, it varies by technology. For ex parte appeals, the time savings is potentially even greater. The average time from appeal number assignment to decision in FY 2014 was 27 months, while accelerated appeals strive to reach decision within 6 months. But again, those are averages.

Can we expect any big changes for the next competition?

As with any of our programs, we're always striving to improve Patents for Humanity. Feedback from the public is greatly appreciated. That said, I don't expect major changes. We've hit on a formula that works really well. As with patents, revolutionary advances don't happen every day. Much progress comes through incremental change, by taking a great idea and continually refining it.