By Tom Still

computer scientist Michelle Lee joined Google as its first head of patent
strategy, the company held a few dozen intellectual property grants. When she
left eight years later, Google’s portfolio spanned 10,500 patents.

The patent
explosion inside Google during Lee’s tenure there is emblematic of how much the
U.S. economy relies on innovation – and how protection of intellectual property
is essential to perpetuating that cycle.

It’s a
principle Lee brought with her when she left California’s Silicon Valley to
become the first woman to lead the 225-year-old U.S. Patent and Trademark

“As we look to
our country’s future, the intangible property rights associated with an idea
are of increasingly greater value,” Lee said during an April 15 visit to
Madison, where she toured parts of the UW-Madison campus and met with academic
researchers and others. “My background as an engineer, computer programmer, and
in the business world informs my work every day.”

Lee’s visit to
Wisconsin – part of a Midwest tour that has included other patent hotspots –
came at a time when Congress is again debating how to streamline the U.S.
patent system. That’s important in a world where competition is constant and
innovation is no longer an exclusively American product.

It also
underscored why major research universities such as the UW-Madison are vital to
the innovation economy, not only nationally but in the states and communities
they serve.

During a public
forum at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, Lee talked about the role of
the federal patent office, congressional efforts to reform the patent system – a
process renewed in 2011 with passage of the America Invents Act – and the
increasingly diverse nature of intellectual property.

Her experience
at Google was largely around innovation in information technology. But some of
the questions she fielded in Madison centered on when and how patents can
extend to the life sciences, where biotechnology, genetic engineering and
related disciplines push the envelope of invention.

In fact, even
Lee was momentarily stumped when a UW-Madison student asked a question about
the patent process for a particular synthetic cell, an idea that seemed
fanciful only a few years ago. “I’ll have to think about that one,” she joked.

The impact of
intellectual property from the UW-Madison and other academic research
institutions in Wisconsin is significant to the state economy. For 20 years or
more, the UW-Madison has ranked among the nation’s top five universities in
research and development spending, with comparable status in production of
patents and license revenues tied to those patents.

The management
of that intellectual property on the Madison campus has been largely handled
for 90 years by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, known by the acronym
WARF. It’s where university inventions by faculty and others are disclosed, patent
and trademark applications are filed when appropriate, license agreements are
negotiated and ideas are often transferred from the lab bench to the

Since 1993,
WARF has licensed more than 125 UW-Madison faculty startup companies and directly
invested nearly $40 million in some of those firms. That’s in addition to the
costs associated with managing, licensing and occasionally defending the
patents themselves. A subsidiary of WARF, the WiSys Technology Foundation,
performs the same function for other UW System campuses except the
UW-Milwaukee, where intellectual property is managed through the UWM Research

The framework
provided by U.S. patent law means organizations such as WARF can support
research and development on R&D campuses, recycling a portion of revenues
from licensing agreements to keep the pipeline of ideas filled. A recent report
by WARF noted it has provided $2.3 billion in cumulative direct grants to the
UW-Madison, more than $400 million in patenting, licensing and
commercialization support, and $300 million to faculty inventors over time.

“… Direct and
indirect support to the university since WARF’s inception exceeds the present
value of WARF’s endowment,” the report noted.

Although not
without its flaws, the safeguards provided by the U.S. patent system have
helped inventors produce and protect 9 million patents since 1790. Keeping that
innovation engine oiled and fueled should be an economic priority for federal
and state policymakers alike.