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Regional USPTO Director Highlights Crucial Role of Patents

dr christal sheppard at conference

Patents play an important role in protecting the ideas behind technological breakthroughs.

That was the message Christal Sheppard, Ph.D., director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s satellite office in Detroit, used to kick off the second day of the 2015 Design of Medical Devices Conference at the University of Minnesota with a keynote address on the role of patents in medical technology. Sheppard went on to further discuss the subject during a breakout session moderated by Jay Schrankler, director of the U’s Office for Technology Commercialization.

Patents have been an important part of the U.S. since the country’s founding, Sheppard said, but are often undervalued as a means for encouraging innovation through research and development. In order to innovate, inventors must spend great effort and expense on research and development. Without patents, another person could take that inventor’s ideas and use them to launch a competing product or service faster and at a lower cost.

This type of competition would drastically reduce the profits the inventor earned, leaving little or no return on his or her original investment. It would harm innovation nationally, as investors across the U.S. would become less likely to risk investing in research and development efforts again.

“Without patents, why would any company spend the amount of money required to get through FDA or other regulatory approvals to get this technology out to the public?” Sheppard said. “Patents are very important.”

For university researchers, patents help protect the results of research and clear the way for faculty to publish their findings or present at academic conferences without fear that someone else will take the idea. As director of the OTC, Schrankler and his team assist university faculty in filing for patents based on the technology they develop through their research.

The patents provide a means for that research to move beyond the lab and take root in the market as a product or service, either through a licensing deal with an existing company or the creation of a new one.

“The U of M has started to spin out a lot of new high-tech companies that really rely on patents,” Schrankler said. “By protecting the intellectual property these companies are based on, patents help research become commercially viable products that can benefit society on a larger scale.”

Tips for Filing Patents

During the discussion, Sheppard outlined several tips for inventors looking to file for a patent:

  • Start with a strong claim: When filling out a patent application, inventors should ensure the “claim” portion clearly states what the invention is. A strong claim helps the PTO’s examiner process filings.
  • Define your terms: The PTO recommends inventors include a glossary of key terms in their patent claim.
  • Make the first filing count: Putting forth a thorough and detailed first patent filing can help limit the number of drafts needed and expedite the patent process.
  • Accelerated examination: For those looking to quicken the path from filing to patent, the PTO offers an accelerated examination option for an additional fee. While the typical patent takes about three years, the accelerated path will take less than a year.

For more on these resources, visit the USPTO’s Inventors & Entrepreneurs Resources page.

University researchers can learn how to report an invention and file for a patent on OTC’s Inventors page.

About the DMD Conference

The Design of Medical Devices Conference is the world’s largest medical device conference, held annually in Minneapolis by the U of M’s Medical Devices Center and College of Science and Engineering. The conference brings together world-class medical device designers, researchers, manufactures to share perspectives and innovations in medical device design and raises funds from corporate sponsorships to support medical device education at the U of M.

Kevin Coss

Kevin Coss

Kevin is a writer with the Office of the Vice President for Research.

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