Friday, September 3, 2021

U.S. Patent & Trademark Office Recognizing COVID-19 Inventions with Its 2021 Patent for Humanity Awards

It is often said that necessity is the mother of invention.

The worldwide impact of the COVID-19 virus has been quick and extensive, affecting every corner of the globe nearly immediately. As a result, the far-reaching effect of the pandemic has led to numerous inventions and discoveries that have greatly benefitted society, allowing some return to “normalcy”.

Notably, a collective focus on the COVID-19 virus has led to game-changing advancements in the research, scientific, and medical communities, with the development of quicker, more accurate and more convenient testing for COVID-19, the creation of new therapies for treatment of infected patients, and the development and widespread introduction of multiple safe and effective vaccines using groundbreaking techniques with dozens more in clinical trials.

The pandemic has also encouraged additional innovation by enterprising inventors and aspiring entrepreneurs recognizing the need for better solutions to new problems created by the pandemic—from creating new masks and PPE designs for everyday use, to developing ventilators for use by hospitals after word of shortages spread, to coming up with creative solutions for hands-free environments and to encourage social distancing in schools, offices, and public spaces.

In April 2021, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“the USPTO”) announced that it was creating a special category for its Patents for Humanity Program to recognize inventions that address the COVID-19 pandemic. The USPTO has long been a champion for innovation and human ingenuity, often encouraging inventors with such programs. Indeed, the U.S. patent system was developed by the framers of the Constitution to encourage and foster innovation. In the spirit of this directive, the USPTO has sought to specifically encourage the innovation community to develop technology addressing global humanitarian challenges, like the COVID-19 pandemic, including inventions aimed at providing affordable, scalable and sustainable solutions for the less fortunate.

Acting USPTO Director Drew Hirshfeld recognized that “[o]ur nation’s innovation community is playing a crucial role in devising creative solutions to the ongoing pandemic.” He added that “[i]nnovation is central to alleviating the difficulties COVID-19 has brought upon the public, and this new Patents for Humanity COVID-19 category allows us to provide special recognition to innovators tackling this unprecedented challenge.” In this regard, the USPTO noted that the new award category aims to provide business incentives for patent applicants, holders and licensees whose inventions track, prevent, diagnose or treat COVID-19.

The Patents for Humanity Program was established in 2012 in an effort to incentivize innovation in humanitarian projects. The Program functions as an awards competition, recognizing meaningful actions and highlighting success stories making innovative technology more available for humanitarian uses and research. In addition to public recognition, winners also receive an acceleration certificate for fast-tracking select proceedings through the patent process. Notably, a recipient of a Patents for Humanity Award will be granted expedited review of any eligible pending application, which can significantly accelerate the application to issuance.

Additionally, under the Patents for Humanity Program Improvement Act passed by Congress in 2021 (Public Law 116-311), award winners may now transfer their acceleration certificates to third parties, including for compensation. As a result, winners may leverage the acceleration certificate for funding to help commercialize their inventions and increase the impact of their technology to the public.

The 2021 Patents for Humanity awards cycle is unique in that the USPTO has opted to focus on inventions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. In past years, awards have been granted in five categories of global challenges, including medicine, nutrition, sanitation, household energy, and improvements in living standards. The USPTO is likely to return to these categories in future competitions.

In general, the Program is open to all types of patent holders, applicants, and licensees ranging from individual inventors and small start-ups, to universities and non-profits, to large multi-national corporations. Past recipients of the Patents for Humanity Award include Sanofi, for supplying anti-malarial compounds on an at-cost basis for use in developing countries; Medtronic, for creating a portable, low-water kidney dialysis machine; American Standard Brands, for developing a safe toilet; and Because International for distributing 180,000 pairs of resizable shoes in over 95 countries.

Applications for the Patents for Humanity COVID-19 Program must be submitted by September 30, 2021. Submissions for the Program are evaluated based on numerous criteria, including the effectiveness of the invention to address the pandemic, the actions taken by the applicant to make the technology available to address the pandemic, and the impact the applicant’s contributions have made to deploy the technology for the benefit of the public. Instructions for the application process are available on the Patents for Humanity COVID-19 page USPTO’s website.

Author: Tucker Griffith 

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