The PTO’s Silicon Valley Director Discusses His Office’s Priorities and Goals

Community outreach and new programs are among the office’s first-year accomplishments.

Regional Director John Cabeca opened the Silicon Valley office of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in San Jose in October 2015, and he has been in constant motion ever since. The regional office serves seven western states: California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Nevada, Hawaii and Alaska.

In a relatively short time, Cabeca and his team have established robust programs to catalyze innovation and foster collaboration with independent inventors, entrepreneurs, intellectual property (IP) practitioners, local and state governments, academia, nonprofit organizations, and STEM education students and teachers, to list a few. I asked John to discuss some of his agency’s accomplishments, priorities and future plans. Here’s the interview.

Elisa Cooper: What are the most pressing issues you are dealing with at the Silicon Valley USPTO now?

John Cabeca: The Silicon Valley USPTO just celebrated its first-year anniversary—we opened in October 2015. We hit the ground running to build our expert team and to engage communities and deliver programs to every state in the region. Each of the USPTO regional offices works to address the unique needs of the communities it serves—the other USPTO regional offices are in Denver, Detroit and Dallas.

We realized early on we needed to design our programs to meet the diverse demands of innovative communities across the region. And to maximize our regional efforts across multiple time zones, we work to do as much as possible, as efficiently as possible, when we are on the ground in the region—to do more with less.  

Our work extends far beyond startups and inventors. It also encompasses STEM initiatives, academia, IP professionals and many others. It also includes bringing together all aspects of the innovation ecosystem that serve to foster and support the small business and entrepreneurial community.

Our programs have also garnered a lot of interest from the Pacific Rim. We often partner with other foreign IP offices and promote our agency’s international resources and initiatives.

Elisa: Before opening the Silicon Valley office, you served as Senior Advisor to the Undersecretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the USPTO in Washington, D.C. How does your work in Silicon Valley differ from your role in Washington, D.C.?

John: When I was based at the USPTO headquarters in the D.C. metro area, I would go to a city, give a talk, and come home. Now that I’m based on the West Coast, I can do a lot more to build and nurture relationships throughout the Western states and strengthen those relationships over time.

I can meet face-to-face with businesses and local communities, making contacts in cities not previously connected to the USPTO. Through direct engagement, we are better able to support their innovation needs and help them pursue intellectual property protection.

Elisa: What are some representative programs or events that have helped you forge connections with western states?

John: Our office aims to reach stakeholders in each state in the region and to send a message: that this is their office. We are here to support their community by tailoring our programming to their unique needs. We are also here to receive critical feedback and actively seek improvements to our processes and procedures.

We take a very proactive approach. Rather than simply gathering information on a “listening tour,” we always look for ways to enhance what we are doing and we do this by engaging all levels of the innovation community—offering outreach and educational opportunities wherever we go.

Here are a few examples of Silicon Valley USPTO programs:

  • San Diego – I spoke at U.C.-San Diego and connected with the mayor’s office, Chamber of Commerce and business resource centers to determine how we could help support San Diego entrepreneurs. In partnership with the city and San Diego’s Fab Lab, we developed a fabrication and innovation series centered on innovation and 3-D printing. The series combines 3-D printing workshops with IP awareness, information and resources.
  • Alaska – At the University of Alaska-Anchorage, as part of World Intellectual Property Day at UAA, our “Beyond Commodities” program was designed to encourage Alaskan businesses and entrepreneurs to seek out other business opportunities beyond the traditional fish and oil industries. They are doing remarkable, innovative work there.

  • Silicon Valley – In Silicon Valley, we are bringing together federal resources to protect startups and entrepreneurs against those who prey on small businesses by fraud and cyber-theft. Our “Disruptors vs. Predators” program educates area businesses on what federal resources are available to them if they fall victim to bad actors.

Elisa: What do you see as the direction of the USPTO in 2017, including its current plans relating to its Enhanced Patent Quality Initiative?

John: Looking back on the past few years, we have made tremendous progress to improve the patent prosecution process. Also, we have increased our focus on patent quality and to ensure our work is clear, consistent and accurate. In support of the USPTO’s Enhanced Patent Quality Initiative, we are evaluating the prosecution process to further improve patent quality and timeliness, such as ensuring that examiners have the tools and resources they need to succeed in an increasingly demanding job.

We have been working on about a dozen quality initiatives. Some programs have been implemented and other ideas are still being evaluated. For instance, we have deployed interview specialists—patent supervisors—who can manage the technology and flow of interviews between the inventor and their examiner, providing an enhanced and more productive experience.

Some interviews are done in person while others are done virtually/remotely through state-of-the-art virtual interview rooms across the USPTO and the regional offices, which is a tremendous resource since many patent examiners work from home across the country.

Elisa: What noticeable trends are you seeing [regarding] the patent filings you have been receiving?

John: Our last fiscal year marked a milestone for the USPTO—we received over 600,000 patent applications. In fact, we have seen an average increase of 4 percent each year over the past five years. Patents are coming from everywhere: high tech, biotech and everything in between. Fortunately, despite the growing influx of new applications, we have successfully decreased our backlog and overall patent pendency.

This year, Silicon Valley USPTO had a presence in Eureka Park at the Consumer Electronics Show/CES 2017. Michelle Lee, Undersecretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, delivered formal remarks on behalf of the USPTO and participated in nationally broadcast news programs.

Since IP plays a key role for the show’s exhibitors, our staff was on-site to engage with the startups and to answer their questions. We had a great visual presence at CES which helped us reach some of the approximate 200,000 attendees and brought IP awareness to many more.

In the Silicon Valley office, we have also focused on specific industry sectors. We had our first West Coast biotech meeting, which helped us cultivate strong ties with biotech companies. Also, we hosted a Cybersecurity Partnership Meeting, which we will do again—the partnership meetings are a true win-win for the USPTO and these important industry sectors.

We also held roundtable discussions on various topics, such as autonomous vehicles, additive manufacturing and smart fabrics. These events help us better understand the needs of diverse industry sectors. We also use these opportunities to educate our patent examiners on emerging technologies so they can make better informed decisions on the great work they do every day. 

Elisa: What are your future plans for Silicon Valley USPTO?

John: One of our biggest challenges in 2016 was onboarding new staff, getting the office up and running and building collaborative relationships across the region. Now, in 2017 and beyond, we can build on our successes and we are doing this in a robust way.

We are aiming to conduct hundreds of outreach program at all levels of the innovation ecosystem this year, and we continually seek ways to better reach the West Coast’s entrepreneurial and IP communities. We are devising focused programs for smaller, specific audiences and maximizing our presence at major trade shows to increase IP awareness.

IP-intensive organizations of all sizes are looking to protect innovation. They must keep an eye on evolving case law. Subject Matter Eligibility is a good example where we are watching these issues closely, asking our stakeholders to share their views on steps we may be able to take going forward.

The Silicon Valley USPTO staff has taken great strides to increase our reach into the communities we serve. We’re able to do a lot with a small team, a great team, and we work closely with USPTO headquarters, too. The more we learn from each other and from our communities, the more we can bring to the region to help support and foster America’s innovation economy. 

Contributing Author

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Elisa Cooper

Elisa is Vice President of Marketing for Lecorpio, the leader in IP management and analytics software solutions. With more than 13 years of direct experience protecting...

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