US Patent Office Launches “Patents for Humanity” Challenge

Water pump in Kigali. What if there was a better way?

By G. Nagesh Rao

Patents are a form of property rights, the origins of which can traced back to 500 BC in Greece. They have become so popular, and the laws protecting patent holders so powerful, that some say the patent system is arcane and inhibitive to the innovation process. Others will argue that they simply appropriate rights to their owners. One thing we can all agree on is the need to incentivize inventors to solve technological problems plaguing the developing world.

Living in a free market society, a vast majority of companies feel they must chase the “bottom line” when it comes to doing business, in order to maximize profits. As Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman famously argued back in 1970 in The New York Times Magazine, the social responsibility of a business is to increase its profits while playing by the rules set forth by government.

While ideas such as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Impact Investing have come a long way, at best, they are taught in business schools via a 2-credit class. As a recent MBA graduate I should know. Graduates are left to figure out how to incorporate them into day to day business practices and they can not always be seen as that sustainable driving force which enables profit gain. Commonly used CSR tools include community service projects, social investment funds, or big donations to non-profit organizations that specialize in helping particular unmet needs. Which are great ways to help drive awareness and spread good-will in an applied manner, but they can be short term and limited in their reach.

So how do you incentivize smart people to consider pursuing business models or technology development for markets that are not financially viable and how do you effectively encourage a company to consider the big picture focused around the “3P’s”?

Traditional methods have generally been through various financial instruments such as taxes, loans, subsidies, or research grants. But what about the notion of Patents, more specifically mechanisms within the US Patent and Trademark Office that could be implemented to encourage inventors to be more socially entrepreneurial with their problem solving?

Well last month at the White House’s Science, Technology, and Innovation Summit for Global Development, UnderSecretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property David Kappos launched a novel program created by the USPTO called the Patents for Humanity Challenge. The USPTO website states the following:

…It is a voluntary pilot program to recognize patent owners who apply their patented technology to address humanitarian needs. The program advances the president’s global development agenda by rewarding companies who bring life-saving technologies to underserved people of the world, while showing how patents are an integral part of tackling the world’s challenges.

Participants will send in applications describing how they’ve used their patented technology or products to address humanitarian challenges. Judges will choose winners in four categories: medical technology, food and nutrition, clean technology and information technology…

Highlighting success stories of humanitarian engagement that are compatible with business interests and strong patent rights will demonstrate how businesses can effectively contribute while maintaining commercial markets.

How cool is that…It is about time we found alternative ways to get people thinking differently when they seek to solve a problem and encourage them to consider other motives than profit. This one from the USPTO demonstrates sincere commitment from the U.S. Government to be experimental and employ disruptive models of thinking to traditional paradigms of policy and programmatic implementation. I encourage all inventors and companies to consider participating in these programs and truly help drive the power of technological innovation in empowering the masses responsibly.

[Image credit: Adam Cohn, Flickr]

G. Nagesh Rao was a former Senior Policy Advisor with the US Department of Commerce’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Currently he serves as an Expert Strategist on IP-Law and Innovation Systems to a number of cutting edge organizations and councils including Publicbeat, Launch:Energy, FLoW, and Global Access in Action.

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2 responses

  1. “How cool is that…It is about time we found alternative ways to get people thinking differently when they seek to solve a problem and encourage them to consider other motives than profit.” — very cool!

  2. Interesting, indeed. I was taught that the patent system was a way to persuade inventors to disclose full details of their inventions, in return for ‘monopoly’ rights for a limited number of years. So actually a way of making inventions public, rather than the opposite. However in this accelerating world maybe the ‘monopoly’ period is simply too long?

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