How We Can Bridge the Innovation Gap

By: W. Keith Robinson, Professor of Law, Faculty Director for Intellectual Property, Technology, Business, and Innovation, Wake Forest University School of Law. Watch his video proposing a Law and Technology Pipeline Consortium.

The patent system is a foundational part of the United States’ innovation ecosystem. The country created a national patent system in 1789. While the patent system has evolved over 200 years, it has remained stagnant in one glaring way. The number of inventors and patent professionals that are women or belong to underrepresented racial and ethnic groups is alarmingly low as compared to white men. While this disparity raises concerns about inclusivity, it also raises the possibility that there are untapped reservoirs of creativity and innovation within our borders.

For example, a 2016 study by the Innovation Technology and Innovation Foundation revealed that 3.3% of U.S.-born innovators identified as Hispanic, and 0.4% of U.S.-born innovators identified as black or African American. The same study found that women represent just 12% of U.S.-born innovators. These numbers might seem staggering to some. Others might genuinely ask why these numbers should raise concerns.

One need look no further than the changing demographics of the U.S. Census data from 2020 indicate that the share of the U.S. population that identifies as White has declined for several decades. The U.S. is becoming more diverse, and it seems this trend will continue. In Peter F. Drucker’s book, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship, Drucker argues that demographics are the clearest external source of innovative opportunity. Underrepresented innovators tend to address overlooked problems that are inherent to their communities. The country’s changing demographics could provide a wealth of untapped innovative opportunities.

The question, then, is what is the cause of the demographic disparity in the patent system, and how can we address it?

In his book, Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation, Rayvon Fouché identifies three primary factors that historically hindered black innovation – (1) limited personal networks; (2) lack of access to legal information and advice; and (3) scarcity of capital. These factors remain challenges for underrepresented groups today. Addressing these challenges, particularly the second, could help increase the number of inventors from underrepresented groups.

As part of my educational and research mission, I am working to build partnerships with government agencies, undergraduate universities, law schools, and corporations to bridge the representation gap in patent-related careers. This proposed consortium seeks to accomplish three primary objectives:

1. Increase the number of patent agents that identify as belonging to an underrepresented racial or ethnic group.

2. Foster informed inventors that identify as belonging to an underrepresented racial or ethnic group.

3. Increase the number of patent attorneys in the United States that identify as belonging to an underrepresented racial or ethnic group.

To accomplish these objectives, the consortium will need to build a robust and accessible IP curriculum. The consortium will work with selected universities, particularly Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) with strong engineering and scientific programs. The program will also collaborate with law schools in areas near these universities. This strategy will create a robust pipeline for underrepresented students to gain valuable insight into intellectual property and the patent process early in their academic journey.

What will the U.S. innovation landscape look like if we can accomplish these objectives? Underrepresented populations may have greater access to legal assistance. With this access, more ideas can become viable inventions, furthering the collective innovative potential of the country. Further, employees from underrepresented groups will have a better understanding of how their innovative contributions can be exploited. This may lead to greater innovative activity within firms.

These goals may seem ambitious and costly. However, the costs and resources needed to increase diversity in the patent system should be seen as an investment that can yield significant dividends in the long run. There are potentially significant economic and societal gains that could be realized from a more diverse and inclusive patent system. Diverse teams have been shown to be more innovative and creative, bringing a wider range of perspectives and problem-solving approaches to the table. One law firm that has made significant investments in this area is Schwegman Lundberg & Woessner. Their SLW Academy is a free educational resource that provides “practical instruction and opportunities to students who are traditionally underrepresented in intellectual property.”

Another concern is that such initiatives will cause people to be hired or promoted based on their sex, racial or ethnic background rather than their qualifications and experience. This perspective fails to consider the systemic barriers (many of which Fouché discusses) that have prevented underrepresented groups from participating fully in the patent law profession. I am not advocating for the hiring of underqualified individuals for the sake of diversity. Instead, I seek to create opportunities for individuals who, due to systemic issues, might not have had the chance to fully demonstrate their potential.

Closing the disparity gap in patent law and innovation will not happen overnight, nor will it be an easy task. However, the consortium offers a feasible and promising roadmap. By providing underrepresented groups with the necessary resources and opportunities, we can stimulate innovation, increase economic productivity, and foster an innovation ecosystem that genuinely reflects the diversity of the United States. If we are to believe that innovation knows no gender or color; it is time our profession reflected the same.

Help us shape a more inclusive future in patent law and innovation. If you are a member of a government agency, a university, a law school, a corporation, a law firm, or an individual committed to bridging the representation gap in patent-related careers, we’d love to collaborate. Let’s work together to build a more robust pipeline for underrepresented students and unleash untapped innovative potential within our country.

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The U.S. patent system is significantly underrepresented in terms of women and ethnic and racial minorities, raising concerns about inclusivity and untapped creativity.

Factors such as limited personal networks, lack of access to legal information and advice, and scarcity of capital have historically hindered innovation among underrepresented groups.

An initiative is underway to bridge the representation gap in patent-related careers by partnering with government agencies, universities, law schools, and corporations. The goals include increasing the number of patent agents and attorneys from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups, fostering informed inventors, and building a robust and accessible IP curriculum.

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