By: Gabrielle Athanasia
On October 25, 2021, the CSIS Renewing American Innovation (RAI) project recorded a conversation on building a more inclusive innovation economy with Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI). RAI senior adviser and co-founder, Andrei Iancu, invited Sen. Hirono to provide the keynote address. Mr. Iancu then moderated a panel discussion featuring serial inventor and founder of Johnson R&D, Lonnie Johnson; Senior Vice President of 3M Corporate R&D Operations, Cordell Hardy; Deputy Commissioner for Patents at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), Valencia Martin-Wallace, and Deputy Director General for Patents and Technology at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), Lisa Jorgenson.
Introducing Sen. Hirono, Mr. Iancu noted that she was born in a village near Fukushima, Japan, immigrating with her family to Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1955. Hirono represented Hawaii in the U.S. House of Representatives before being elected as the state’s first female senator in 2013. She is the first Asian-American and the first Asian immigrant to serve in the U.S. Senate. She is a member of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Intellectual Property and is a champion for expanding diversity in the U.S. innovation ecosystem. She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Hawaii and a law degree from Georgetown University.
Keynote: Increasing Diversity in our Innovation Economy
In her keynote address, Senator Hirono began by discussing the underrepresentation of women and minorities in the U.S. patent system. Women and minority inventors and researchers, responsible for groundbreaking technologies like the windshield wiper (Mary Anderson, 1903), the home security system (Marie Van Brown, 1966), and the CRISPR gene-editing tool (Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, 2011), have contributed greatly to innovation in the United States. Despite this, Hirono mentioned, diverse inventors make up a disproportionately small share of patent-filers in the United States. Women, for example, were listed on only 22% of all patents filed on new inventions according to the 2020 USPTO on women inventors. Similarly, the percentage of African American and Hispanic college graduates who hold patents is half that of their white counterparts. “Closing these gaps would turbocharge our economy,” Hirono argued. “It’s simply good policy and good business to make our innovation economy accessible to all.”
Taking Steps to Reduce the Gap
Senator Hirono discussed the steps Congress and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) are taking to address the patent gaps. The SUCCESS Act, passed by Congress in 2018 and co-sponsored by Hirono, directed the USPTO to study the number of patents applied for and obtained by women, minorities, and veterans. Hirono discussed the USPTO’s launch of its National Council for Expanding American Innovation, an initiative tasked with guiding the USPTO by developing a comprehensive national strategy to build a more diverse and inclusive innovation ecosystem. Hirono also introduced the Inventor Diversity for Economic Advancement (IDEA) Act along with Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) earlier this year, directing the USPTO to collect demographic data from patent applicants on a voluntary basis. Ideally, it will give a much clearer picture of who applies for patents, where the gaps may be, and inform policy decisions to alleviate them. In an effort to encourage more women to pursue STEM careers, Hirono introduced the STEM Opportunities Act and the Women and Minorities in STEM Booster Act, aimed at improving the recruitment, retention, and success of women and minorities in the STEM pipeline.
“Any endeavor where there are very few women or minorities would benefit from having women and minorities be out front and be role models.”
Noticing a lack of female lawyers on her path through law school, Senator Hirono discussed the importance of representing everyone in these STEM fields. “It’s good to see that there are people who look like us, who have the backgrounds like us…who are in the STEM fields. It’s really important.”
Another important component of diversity relates to geography. As Senator Hirono and Mr. Iancu discussed, it is important to enact policy that supports inventors and bright minds across the United States, not just in major metropolitan areas like New York City, Boston, or Silicon Valley. Places like Sen. Hirono’s home state of Hawaii do not garner nearly as much venture capital or tech transfer resources, a trend seen across the country’s rural and non-coastal regions despite their ripe inventive and entrepreneurial talent. When asked what more can be done by leaders in the field to highlight these individuals, Hirono said the most important piece is raising awareness and providing support to harness their talents and skills.
Panel Discussion: Building an Inclusive Innovation Ecosystem
The disparities in the U.S. patent system are just one measure of how women and minorities lack opportunities and representation in the innovation economy. After Hirono’s address, panelists from diverse backgrounds discussed other ways to build a more diverse and inclusive innovation ecosystem beyond intellectual property.
First, Lonnie Johnson spoke about his experience growing up in Mobile, Alabama, in the 1960s during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Johnson grew up in an era of harsh discrimination, but his passion for science, technology, and invention persevered throughout his schooling. Speaking on his experience, Johnson said “I would never accept the idea of racism and bigotry because I felt that personally I would eventually overcome those things … it’s not something that comes easy, but I think that having had the successes I had as a young individual … gave me the self-confidence to navigate through the negative environments that I would find myself in.
Valencia Martin-Wallace, who heads the National Council for Expanding American Innovation (NCEAI), spoke about her experience growing up as an African American girl in Louisiana. Now the Deputy Commissioner of the USPTO with degrees in law and electrical engineering, Martin-Wallace said this is “not necessarily the path that young African-American girls were told they were supposed to go at that time in the late 60s and 70s.” She credits her success to her parents and teachers who supported her inquisitiveness and interest in pursuing a career in science and technology. Martin-Wallace hopes to build a strategy through the NCEAI to support diverse young minds and give them the opportunities and education that allowed her to follow her passion in STEM.
Lisa Jorgenson, Deputy Director General for Patents and Technology at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), discussed steps WIPO is currently taking to address the gender disparities within the international patent system. Jorgenson detailed some of WIPO’s gender-related strategic goals, which involve promoting and encouraging female engagement in intellectual property and providing expertise and support services in IP and gender issues to both WIPO member states and other worldwide stakeholders. She hopes to provide the necessary data and information to integrate a gender-based perspective on intellectual property legislation and policy programs.
Finally, Cordell Hardy spoke of his experience working for 3M’s global R&D enterprises. In Hardy’s words, businesses like 3M have an interest in increasing their inclusivity and diversity. “We can’t maximize the performance of our technical and business community if we are leaving a significant share of our brain power outside of the process.” Currently, he is working to draw forward the participation of our entire community of researchers and other employees in the inventive process in order to build out inclusivity.
As policy makers and industry practitioners look to increase diversity in American innovation, underrepresented or under-resourced groups must have access to the support, training, and funding to alleviate demographic and geographic disparities. Inclusive innovation is critical to our national competitiveness. Beyond our moral imperative to ensure access to opportunities for all Americans, we risk ceding our international technological and economic leadership if we fail to diversify our sources of entrepreneurship and invention.
Closing the event, Mr. Iancu expressed his satisfaction that the Renewing American Innovation Project at CSIS had the opportunity to host such interesting perspectives across the U.S.’s innovation ecosystem.
Gabrielle Athanasia is a Program Coordinator and Research Assistant with the Renewing American Innovation Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.
The Perspectives on Innovation Blog is produced by the Renewing American Innovation Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).