The numbers are stark: Less than 13% of all inventors listed on US patents are women. Black, Latinx, multiracial, Native American and Alaska Native inventors account for less than 8% of all US inventors. Children of families in the top 1% of income are 10 times more likely to patent in their lifetimes than children in the bottom half of family income. But that can change, thanks in part to Invent Together and Qualcomm.
In 2015, Laurie Self, Senior Vice President and Counsel, Government Affairs at Qualcomm, and Holly Fechner, Invent Together Executive Director and Partner at Covington & Burling LLP, launched an effort to address inequity in the patent system. The two worked together at Covington before Self moved in house in 2005. They’ve collaborated on patent policy for over 15 years, as the stakes, and the associated political debate, have increased.
Their work led to a harsh realization.
“We were increasingly reaching out to startups, to small inventors, to understand their perspectives and to give them voice in this debate,” says Self. “In Washington, it’s the big guys who carry the weight. We were trying to bring together a community of small inventors, startups, to really spotlight that these are the entities, the individuals that the patent system is meant to protect and support.”
Very few of them were women or people of color. The gap was profound, and it was particularly significant as changes were being made to the patent system — in great part driven by the largest players in the space.
It occurred to Self that “if you’re erecting barriers for the little guy to participate in the patent system, those obstacles are going to disproportionately impact individuals who are already marginalized,” she says.
Together, Self, who specializes in intellectual property and technology policy issues, and Fechner, an expert in DEI issues and a former policy director for Sen. Ted Kennedy, decided to do something about it.
“Unless somebody is telling you this is how it’s done, you don’t know. And unless somebody is helping you understand why participating in the patent system is important, professionally, you don’t know to do it.”
Senior Vice President and Counsel of Government Affairs
They reviewed research, including studies that relied on imperfect proxies for demographic information, such as names. They also supported new research by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research to quantify the inventor diversity gaps and identify best practices to close them.
As they continued to explore the inventor diversity problem and potential solutions, they convened multiple roundtable workshops that brought together academics, practitioners, universities, companies, nonprofits, policymakers, and other stakeholders, and created a community that deeply cares about these issues.
In 2020, Fechner and Self officially launched Invent Together with Qualcomm and a number of university and nonprofit partners.
Invent Together has changed the conversation and has scored several federal public policy victories. The alliance championed the enactment of the Securing Universal Communications Connectivity to Ensure Students Succeed (SUCCESS) Act, which required the USPTO to conduct a study on inventor diversity; the Unleashing American Innovators Act, which will expand participation in patenting by increasing USPTO outreach and assistance and by improving the patent pro bono program; and the CHIPS and Science Act, which included provisions that will enhance equity and opportunity for underrepresented groups in science and technology.
“The USPTO became part of our community in a very passionate way,” Self says. “One of the first things we did in the policy space was to pass legislation that required the PTO to conduct a comprehensive study. They did a phenomenal job. That got them fully immersed in this issue, so that they became an incredible partner and champion.”
The catalyzing force for all involved, according to Fechner, was a collective understanding that a society and an economy that work for everyone can never be an assumption, and that on a fundamental level, innovation is not a zero-sum game.
“There is no pie that’s being divided up; we are all about making the pie bigger,” Fechner says. “Then you have the personal benefits to the person doing the inventing. Maybe it’s personal satisfaction, it’s economic. Maybe they get a promotion out of it. But society benefits too, because we might not have had that invention. Somebody else may not have thought about it.”
Data can be a powerful tool to get attention. But while the numbers surfaced by their initial effort were compelling and effective, Fechner and Self knew that the data told only half the story.
Storytelling for Advocacy
As Fechner and Self worked to grow the coalition and identify and share best practices, they talked to people. A lot of people. Highly experienced, well-credentialed people in business and academia. From their experience in policy, Self and Fechner knew one of the keys to effective advocacy is storytelling, backed by empirically grounded facts. Many of the stories they heard were very similar.
“What we were finding was that there wasn’t a formalized means to access the patent system within a lot of these organizations,” Self says. “There wasn’t a culture of leaders mentoring people in a systematic way. It was almost a word-of-mouth kind of thing.”
There were unspoken rules and processes. Tacit knowledge that was rarely articulated. Collaborators working on a particular problem, for example, could meet to discuss solutions. Somebody in the room would take notes. The names in those notes would be those ultimately listed as applicants on a patent application — an important fact that too often goes without saying. Unless you knew to make sure that your name made it into the notes, and onto that list, you wouldn’t be included.
“So, something as simple as that becomes impactful in terms of how many women are listed on patent applications that are filed by a university or filed by a corporation,” says Self. “Unless somebody is telling you this is how it’s done, you don’t know. And unless somebody is helping you understand why participating in the patent system is important, professionally, you don’t know to do it.”
The more conversations they had, the clearer it became that there were many attempts to address the problem, but that there was no real coordination, within organizations or more expansively. That was true within Qualcomm, too. Like most big companies, Qualcomm had many diversity programs, but nothing focused specifically on patenting. With key support from the executive team, that’s changed.
“We got that underway last year,” Self says, in regard to a new initiative called Cultivating Innovation: Inventor Series, a collaborative effort between the IP department, public affairs, and employee networks to increase diversity in innovation at Qualcomm. “It’s a more formalized opportunity to educate our engineering community about what it means to be part of an inventive culture at Qualcomm, why patenting matters, what the patent system entails, and what internal resources and steps towards patenting we have.”
Fechner emphasizes a wrong assumption that most organizations make about diversifying the patenting world: They think it’s a pipeline problem.
“They think that if you get more women and people of color into STEM programs, and those people get the degrees, then they go to the companies, then it’s all going to be solved. That is not the case,” Fechner says. “One of the things that we found was that it’s not uncommon when people from historically underrepresented groups raise an idea, if it’s dismissed or shot down the first time, then they don’t bring it back.”
In other words, people stop because they don’t see a path forward. But the patent system is integral not only to incentivizing innovation, but to creating prosperity for inventors. It’s a bridge to monetizing ideas, but one too often shrouded — unseen by the uninitiated.
“There is no pie that’s being divided up; we are all about making the pie bigger.”
Executive Director, Invent Together
Partner, Covington & Burling
Clearing the Way
“The bridge functions in a lot of different ways, but it really is that means of creating the property rights and the commercial incentives to move from a great idea to something that has economic viability and impact,” Self says. “And how do we ensure that the bridge has that strong foundation and is open to all? That’s a conversation where, candidly, I feel like Washington has kind of lost its way.”
She says the debate around how the patent system is used, or sometimes abused, has been so loud that it distracts from the fundamental value that the system brings to our entrepreneurial economy. The only way that economy can grow to its fullest extent is by eliminating barriers for women, and people of color, and other underrepresented groups. Fechner agrees that the challenge is elemental.
“Intellectual property rights are enshrined in the Constitution,” Fechner says. “It was one of the key things that the founders thought would separate us from the old way of doing things. We’re not going to constrain who has opportunity. We’re going to make it an open system, so that as many people as possible invent and patent.”
To address that, one of the things Qualcomm did as an Invent Together partner was to create a free online tool to help people understand intellectual property and prepare them to apply for their own patents. The Inventor’s Patent Academy is unique because in addition to providing practical advice on the patenting process, it covers some of the challenges inventors (particularly women, people of color, individuals with lower incomes, people with disabilities, and other historically underrepresented inventors) may face and provides tools to overcome them. The course is available for free online via Invent Together.
“This was really in response to a call to action by the PTO for US leaders in the patent system to be a part of the solution,” Self says. “The Inventor’s Patent Academy builds off educational tools that we had previously created. It’s the first patent education tool we’re aware of specifically designed to reach all inventors. It directly speaks to the barriers that women and people of color and other diverse groups face as they attempt to access the patent system. And it includes stories by a diversity of inventors.”
The more prominent information, tools, and stories become, the more the path opens. The conduit to innovation, social benefit, and prosperity becomes increasingly obvious. In time, they hope, it will be seen by all.