Detroit, One Invention at a Time

When Elijah J. McCoy was inventing lubricating systems for the steam engines of locomotives and ships in Ypsilanti and Detroit, Mich. in the 19th century – he ultimately held 57 patents – he probably didn't realize his work would spawn masses of people looking to invent the next "real McCoy".

The opening of the Elijah J. McCoy United States Patent and Trademark Office [USPTO] in Detroit last July, the first satellite office outside of Washington D.C., was called for by the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act of 2011 (AIA), also known as the Patent Reform Act of 2011.

The act requires new USPTO satellite locations as part of its goal of improving and expediting the U.S. patent application system, which some say has been saddled by a three-year backlog in recent years. Cutting the backlog allows businesses and inventors to protect and move their product to market more quickly – an especially important consideration for the Detroit economy, which has been on a diversification tear as of late. Detroit ranks 11th among U.S. metropolitan areas in utility patents granted from 2006-2010, according to a USPTO spokesperson.

When the USPTO was conducting its location search (Denver, Dallas, and the Silicon Valley region were also chosen), "some of the criteria included the ability to recruit and retain top talent in the area, as well as to be able to conduct outreach to the IP community...the potential economic impact on the area, and the geographic diversity of the area," says Detroit USPTO Regional Manager Robin Evans.

The plethora of Fortune 500 companies, large law firms, and the presence of major research universities such as the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Wayne State University also factored into the decision.

"People don't realize that Detroit is the think tank of the automotive engineering world," says Chris Quinn, patent attorney and managing shareholder of Novi, Mich.-based Quinn Law Group, PLLC. "We've lost lots of manufacturing jobs, obviously, and the economy's gotten hit hard, but from the technology side, Detroit is where automotive engineering happens. You just look around, there are engineering tech centers everywhere."

"Our firm is kind of evidence of that.," explains Quinn. "I started this firm 10 years ago by myself. We've grown from one to 23 people in 10 years and we're currently looking to hire at least two or three more people. We are swamped with work, and it is all technology."

The Detroit office is expected to help alleviate the patent backlog. In fiscal 2012, examiners concentrated on 260,000 applications filed before September 2010, aiming to issue first action responses to the cases. About 20,000 remain and are expected to be completed by the end of fiscal 2012, Evans says.

Approximately 100 examiners and up to 15 administrative judges will staff the office within its first year of operation. Twenty-five examiners completed training in August, and the next group of hires has arrived. Another round of hiring will take place in November and December of this year.

"Things like this, adding more offices and adding more examiners, are really what's going to help in getting through the backlog," Quinn says, adding, "[The USPTO] seems to be committed to getting through the backlog... And I think it's getting better. It sure seems to be getting better."

And, just as business incubators such as Ann Arbor SPARK's SPARK Central and SPARK East and the Macomb-OU Incubator have done, the satellite office is expected to attract a cluster of entrepreneurs, inventors, and peripheral services businesses to the area. Evans says it will be "a magnet for innovative and technology-driven companies, law firms, and patent filers, and that will infuse dollars, ideas, and competition in the Detroit economy."

"Just looking at Alexandria, [Va.], law firms, drafting firms, and even start-up companies fought hard to get real estate in the Alexandria area near the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office campus, and so we hope the same thing will begin to happen in Detroit," she adds.

The office opening, Quinn says, "affects us quite significantly because this area can become even more of a hotbed of patent activity; internationally, companies will be more aware of the innovation capability of this area. If you're in Germany and you're looking to put a technical R&D center somewhere, Detroit just moved up on the list, once again, because of the patent office being here."

This activity is facilitated by improved access to the patent examiners. "We have attorneys fly in to Detroit to have meetings with the examiner here, whereas normally they would have flown into Alexandria. The same with our public searchers. We have public searchers that live in the Detroit metro region who say they used to fly into Alexandria to use the public search room at the main campus, and now they can drive into Detroit and spend the day [there] and use the public search room here," Evans explains.

The search room is open to independent inventors, attorneys, agents, and entrepreneurs. Examiners may also be reached via special teleconferencing equipment on the premises.

"In my firm here we know about a third of the examiners [the USPTO] has hired already," Quinn says. "It's a good thing to have a relationship with these people. Things move more efficiently. We can go down and meet with the examiners and resolve issues, and get patents issued more quickly, with the result being better-quality patents that are cheaper. You have enhanced value that follows that."

Quinn counts General Motors, Eaton Corp., auto suppliers, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and aerospace companies among Quinn Law Group's major clients.

"Being in Detroit, it's mostly automotive-related technology, but automotive-related technology is pretty much everything under the sun except for biotech."

"Automobiles have been a platform from which a lot of different technology has sprung," he adds."You look at batteries and smart manufacturing and controls and electronics, safety equipment, robotics and the smart plastics. Lightweight, high-strength materials, energy efficiency, green technology, hybrid-electric propulsion. There's a lot of stuff: environmental energy, renewable energy, green tech, and clean power. Lots of money has been spent in R&D in this area on these technologies which will hopefully, starting with Detroit, improve the economy locally and potentially improve the world."

Intellectual property-intensive industries have created 40 million direct and indirect jobs that added $5.06 trillion to the U.S. economy in 2010, according to a U.S. Department of Commerce report.

Examiners hired in Detroit thus far specialize in the mechanical and electrical fields. Says Evans, "if our backlog in the mechanical and the electrical area decreases and then increases in some other technologies, then I'm sure our focus will change, but right now for the short term it is mechanical and electrical areas, as well as having some intellectual property experience. Our examiners in Detroit [are] top-rated folks who have experience in intellectual property."

The office also has a mission of public outreach programming in the form of workshops and networking events – a trademark roundtable is scheduled for November. Officials have also met with organizers of the Science & Engineering Fair of Metro Detroit. "We are talking about reaching out to the schools, especially the schools in inner-city Detroit, going to classrooms and teacher meetings to kind of encourage students in grades 5-12 to get interested and engaged in science and engineering fields," says Evans.

Not least, a generation of scientific minds, bred early, could have a lasting impact by staying on post-college to form knowledge-based industries in the region.

"I'm glad that the [USPTO] chose Detroit and I think it's going to be a good thing," Quinn says. "I hope Detroit takes this opportunity to really market it and do something to change its reputation nationally and internationally, because this is a really good opportunity – so we'll see what they do with it. It'll be fun."

In the late November or early December timeframe, about 50 more patent examiners will be hired. Selection criteria includes experience in intellectual property and a degree in engineering or science. For more information, click here.

Tanya Muzumdar is a freelance writer, poet, and the Assistant Editor of Metromode and Concentrate. She is also the daughter of a U.S. patent holder. Her last article was, "Worth a Thousand Words: A Chat With George Bulanda".

All Photos by David Lewinski Photography