Invent Together | IDEA Act Would Help Remove Barriers To Inventor Equity IDEA Act Would Help Remove Barriers To Inventor Equity | Invent Together

IDEA Act Would Help Remove Barriers To Inventor Equity

July 7, 2022

By Holly Fechner (July 7, 2022)

At age 17, Alissa Chavez became the youngest known Latina patent holder in the U.S. Her invention, Hot Seat, is an alarm system intended to prevent a parent from accidentally leaving a child in a hot car.

Chavez introduced the idea for Hot Seat at her eighth grade science fair. She advanced to the semifinals and caught the attention of a patent attorney who encouraged her to file for a patent.

The founder and CEO of Assila LLC, Chavez has sold hundreds of Hot Seats, and continues to invent new products to help parents, including the EasyFlo baby bottle, which allows parents to transport and mix formula and water on the go, all in a single container.

As we celebrate success stories like that of Chavez, we must also take action to ensure that we're not leaving the talent of other diverse inventors untapped.

Researchers have shown that women, people of color and individuals with lower incomes patent their inventions at significantly lower rates than their representation in the population.[1]

According to Alex Bell, postdoctoral scholar at the California Policy Lab at UCLA, we could quadruple the number of inventors in America if we meet the challenge of closing the inventor diversity gaps.[2]

These gaps mean that large segments of the population are missing out on the rewards of patenting. Studies[3] show that inventors who are granted patents benefit from increased income, new promotion and job opportunities, broader social networks, and heightened prestige.

The inventor diversity gaps do not just limit the potential of individual inventors, but also the potential of the broader American innovation economy. Economist Lisa Cook found that including more women and African Americans[4] in the early stages of innovation could increase annual U.S. gross domestic product by almost $1 trillion.

Expanding participation in invention and patenting would also lead to new and different inventions, new businesses, and new jobs.

But in order to close the inventor diversity gaps, we have to first understand the full extent of the problem. That means collecting consistent and reliable data on who is inventing and patenting in the United States. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office currently does not collect demographic information from patent applicants.

In the absence of a comprehensive data source, researchers have relied on name-matching software and other imperfect techniques to study disparities in patenting. These studies have found that:

  • Fewer than 13% of all inventors listed on a patent in 2019 were women;[5]
  • Black and Hispanic college graduates apply for and are awarded patents at half the rate of their white counterparts;[6] and
  • Children in families in the top 1% income bracket are 10 times more likely to patent as adults than those in families in the entire bottom half income bracket.[7]

Gathering information on the demographic characteristics of inventors is a crucial step toward identifying and closing diversity gaps in patenting, strengthening our economy, and building a more diverse and inclusive innovation ecosystem.

Access to data will allow stakeholders to:

  • Understand the challenge;
  • Promote institutional best practices;
  • Provide technical and programmatic assistance to would-be inventors;
  • Support policies that advance science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, and invention education;
  • Incentivize venture capital firms to support a more diverse set of inventors;
  • Strengthen the patent system; and
  • Prevent and remedy discrimination.

Fortunately, members of Congress have a legislative solution to this problem, the Inventor Diversity for Economic Advancement, or IDEA, Act.

This bipartisan, bicameral legislation, passed by the U.S. Senate as part of the United States Innovation and Competition Act and the U.S. House of Representatives as part of the America Competes Act, would require the USPTO to collect inventors' demographic data on a voluntary basis, allowing the USPTO and the public to accurately examine the inventor diversity gaps and track progress toward closing them.

The bill would require that demographic information be kept separate from patent applications to mitigate implicit bias in the patent examination process. The USPTO would also be required to publish an annual report on the total number of patent applications filed and issued, disaggregated by demographic information, and a biennial report evaluating the data collection process.

The IDEA Act would help organizations, educational institutions, companies and other stakeholders better identify and serve people who face systemic barriers to patenting. It would give policymakers the information they need to address the inventor diversity gaps.

And it would help ensure that innovative Americans like Chavez have the opportunity to invent, build businesses, stimulate the economy and improve the way we live our everyday lives.

Holly Fechner is the executive director of Invent Together and a partner at Covington & Burling LLP.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.