Guest Post By David Kappos and Quentin Palfrey
In April 2013, the Obama Administration announced the first wave of winners of the Patents for Humanity competition, an innovative program to provide recognition and incentives to companies that use their patented technologies to help the world’s poorest people. The winners and honorable mentions were diverse and impressive. For example, Gilead Science was recognized for making HIV/AIDS drugs available through innovative licensing mechanisms.The University of California at Berkeley developed lower cost ways to product anti-malarial compounds. DuPont developed an improved strain of sorghum that was fortified with more protein and vitamins for use among starving populations in sub-Saharan Africa. Procter & Gamble removed impurities from drinking water. Nokeros delivered solar light bulbs and phone chargers for off-grid villages through local entrepreneurs. In addition to well-deserved recognition for these and other laudable initiatives, companies recognized through the Patents for Humanity program received something else: a voucher to accelerate applications in one of several processes at the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO).
This February, the White House reaffirmed its commitment to the Patents for Humanity program, removing it from pilot status and making it an annual program. The second wave of applications is due at the end of this month and we are sure to see another impressive group of innovators seeking recognition. But the program could be even more impactful in incentivizing humanitarian uses of patented technology if awardees were free to transfer their acceleration vouchers to other companies. This would increase the incentive effect of the program by making the vouchers more valuable. That is the idea behind the Patents for Humanity Program Improvement Act, introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Senator Chris Coons. The Obama Administration has supported this common sense, cost-neutral measure to strengthen an innovative program.
The challenges facing the world’s poor are daunting. One in eight people on the planet suffers from malnutrition. AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria kill more than 6 million people a year. More than a billion lack access to safe drinking water. To overcome these challenges will require a sustained commitment, as well as many new ideas and inventions. The global fight against disease, hunger, poor sanitation, and other development challenges is urgent and bipartisan, and we hope Congress will act without delay to pass Senator Leahy’s and Senator Coons’ bill.
David Kappos is the former Under Secretary of Commerce and Director of the United States Patent & Trademark Office. Quentin Palfrey, a special counsel at the law firm WilmerHale, is a former Senior Advisor for Jobs & Competitiveness in the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy.