What can the US Patent & Trade Office do for your startup? Startup Grind DC Fireside Chat with Michelle K. Lee

The United States Patent and Trade Office is most recognizable as an agency for granting U.S. patents and registering trademarks, but at the Startup Grind DC Fireside Chat with Ms. Michelle K. Lee the audience learned about how much the agency does to help the nation's startups.

"I program in more languages than I speak, which is a point of pride for me as I run America's innovation agency."

Ms. Lee shared the experiences that prepared her for leading the agency into the future- from coding and working in Artificial Intelligence to working with Google.  It was while pursuing her Masters in Computer Engineering at MIT that Lee was inspired to change course to study law during the Apple vs. Microsoft copyright infringement lawsuit.

"There are going to be a lot of really interesting legal questions with no answers in the existing case law and somebody who understands the technology and the law can help influence in a positive direction for innovation. If intellectual property rights are too strong you can stifle innovation, if they are too weak then you don't get the innovation," Lee said.

Getting into the Innovation Game

Lee got her legal feet wet advising startups and Fortune 100 companies at Silicon Valley-based firm Fenwick and West LLP but welcomed the opportunity to work for the, then, relatively young Google. While at Google, Lee was Deputy General Counsel and the company's first Head of Patents and Patent Strategy. By the time she left Google, the company had over 8,500 patents in the portfolio and was heavily involved in mobile technology. 

"The USPTO's mission at the highest level is to promote American innovation thru intellectual property rights." 

Since 1790 the USPTO has served the country to support innovation by protecting the inventors and new ideas. 

"We are one of the most innovative societies on this planet at any time in history and it's not an accident, in part it's because we have an IP system that gives protection to recoup the rewards of your hard work and investment"

From the founding of the USPTO the offices have been located within close proximity to our nation's capital of DC. Under Ms. Lee's direction, and the America Invents Act of 2011, the USPTO was granted the ability to open regional offices to better serve the country's inventors. Today offices are located in Detroit, Denver,  Silicon Valley, Dallas and a partner office at Cornell University in NY.

Opening regional offices that could serve in different time zones and areas of the country allows the USPTO to provide their full range of services to a broader community. Ms. Lee noted that these can serve the regions as hubs for innovation, education, and outreach because "Startups don't have the time energy or resources to pay attention to all of the policies and programs that may benefit them."

How the US Parent & Trade Office can Help Your Startup

"How do you use intellectual property as part of your business strategy? Earlier is always better."

A highlight for the audience during Lee's discussion was learning about the plethora of the resources available for startups- at no cost. Even if a business is not able to attend a workshop or seminar provided by the USPTO, their online Inventor & Entrepreneur Resources center is a great tool in understanding the process and support.

Many entrepreneurs, especially software developers, are unsure if they should consider filing for patents and copyright. Lee addressed the issue by emphasizing the importance of analyzing the different protections and making a decision based on the business model, "An IP strategy has to be a piece of your business strategy and it will vary based on your industry sector. What your IP strategy is will depend on competitors, where you think you will do business and your technology area."

She continued that each form of IP protection has its advantages and disadvantages and making an informed decision is vital. Startups should also be considering their global protection from day one.

The online IP Awareness Assessment offers inventors a free tool to begin identifying what type of intellectual property protection assets a business may have, and options to protect those assets. 

Some other highlights for all businesses to consider included: Inventors Assistance Center (IAC), Pro se- Pro Bono attorney representation (if eligible), Inventor's Assistance by State, filing fee discounts for micro and small enterprises, and upcoming events hosted by the offices.

Staying Scrappy

"We are scrappier- we had to create a new country out of nothing"

A common theme during the evening was an emphasis on the importance of promoting innovation for the continued strength and growth of the country.

One method to foster innovation is from the intersection of government and business, "The more cross-fertilization that there is between the business world and government, everyone will be better off for it. Each one operates in its own silo to some degree and our success is tied together- they both need each other."  Lee highlighted the importance of this for the creation of new ideas and the development of policies and law that can support disruptions to industry.

For the full fireside chat and to learn more about how the USPTO is helping startups watch it here: