NEWS | Aug. 21, 2012

Kathy Chapman and NRL-SSC Recognize Gulf Coast Technology Innovation Potential

By Shannon Breland

When Kathy Chapman arrived at Naval Research Laboratory-Stennis Space Center (NRL-SSC) in 2010 as the assistant counsel for patents, she looked forward to working with an amazing collection of scientists — oceanographers and meteorologists no less.

Chapman, who holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in meteorology in addition to her law degree, was happy to have found a position that combines both law and meteorology, an interest which began for her as a child on the Gulf Coast during hurricane season. She was fortunate to join a welcoming group and a highly supportive supervisor, Armand Beede.

After witnessing the economic devastation on the Gulf Coast in the wake of Katrina, she saw her new position as an opportunity to help with the recovery. She could imagine new businesses based on the myriad of NRL-SSC technologies and the opportunities such technology transfer would bring to the communities of the Gulf Coast. Using technology as an economic stimulus has been done before. Chapman researched high-growth areas such as Huntsville, drew from her experience as a patent attorney in the technology-hub around Boston, and chose a plan that she dubbed the push/pull plan.

First the push. The NRL-SSC researchers needed tools and reasons to move their technologies from the labs to the local economy. The tools — familiarity with intellectual property protection itself and that process at NRL — have been widely received and used by the NRL-SSC scientists and engineers. Chapman and paralegal/MBA Suzette Serio create instructive presentations about intellectual property law and provide them periodically to the scientists and engineers at NRL-SSC. Intellectual property fundamentals as well as legal updates, such as the recent patent reform legislation, are presented. These presentations, among other things, answer some frequently asked questions: Yes, government employees can (and do!) receive royalties for patented inventions created on government time with government resources-as much as $150,000 per year-if the invention is licensed to private entities for commercial use!

In the oversimplified-for-your-benefit-here world of government intellectual property (IP), a civil servant inventor creates a technology at the Lab, applies for a patent (with Chapman's help), and waits a couple years. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) issues the patent (or not in some cases). Then, after some magic is applied, a business becomes interested in the technology, licenses the intellectual property, and sells the technology, at which time the inventor receives royalties and spreads the word.

The magic, of course, is the pull. In fact this pull is a problem throughout the US. There is a great wealth of technology idling in universities and government laboratories such as NRL-SSC for lack of entrepreneurs willing and able to create and market products using the technology, despite the very favorable terms upon which the government transfers the technology.

Making the challenge more interesting, the Gulf Coast region has a culture of its own favoring a customized implementation of the pull over a straight copy from another area, for example, Cambridge or Silicon Valley. In fact, some have begun nicknaming the Gulf Coast's technology area as Silicon Bayou, recognizing the unique aspects of a region that has literally been washed away and is rebuilding, in many respects, from scratch during a world-wide economic downturn and recovery.

As a first step to creating the pull, Chapman and Serio have been working closely with Cameron Childs, Technology Transfer specialist at NRL-DC, to characterize NRL-SSC inventions to make their possible applications more transparent to the busy potential research and/or commercialization partner.

Another critical step is nurturing an environment favorable to investment in innovation. The US patent system has been a catalyst for commercialization of innovation since the first patent was issued in 1790 because the grant of a patent gives one the right to exclude others from making, using, and selling the invention for a fixed period of time. This time gives the inventor an opportunity to get ahead of the market. In return, the inventor donates the invention to the public after the patent expires.

Intellectual property professionals assist inventors in understanding the importance to business of protecting intellectual property. Searching for an intellectual property group to join when she first arrived on the Gulf Coast, Chapman discovered that there were no patent attorneys in private practice on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a handful on the Alabama Gulf Coast and in the Florida panhandle, and several more, but by no means a huge number, in New Orleans. She found several reasons for this difference between the Gulf Coast and, for example, the Boston area, and some of those reasons, if rectified, could lead to enhanced investment in innovation on the Gulf Coast.

So she started an organization — the Gulf Coast Patent Association (GCPA) — whose mission it is to encourage an environment that nurtures innovation. What she thought would be a small group of IP professionals meeting periodically to network and discuss hot topics in the field, turned into a five-state assembly of patent attorneys, business owners, company representatives, venture capitalists and angel investors. In a little over a year, the GCPA has 82 members, and is planning its fifth membership meeting in Florida to be held in mid-June.

Like Chapman, GCPA members interact with technology transfer and business incubators to encourage more commercialization, which could bring more innovation-related jobs to the Gulf Coast. The group aims to educate business owners on how to tackle what can be a very intimidating process while protecting inventors' rights.

Encouraged by chance meeting with an invited speaker from the USPTO in New Orleans for the Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) meeting last November, GCPA members created and submitted a comprehensive proposal for one of three USPTO satellite offices to be located in the New Orleans area.

One satellite office is located in Detroit, said Chapman. If one of the remaining two is located here, it would be a magnet for entrepreneurs, a catalyst to expand university programs and would bring additional smart people here for NRL to hire. A worn-out expression is apt here: A rising tide raises all boats. The location of a USPTO satellite office along the Gulf Coast could get the message out that the Gulf Coast region has been and continues to be a place of creativity and innovation, a good place to locate a business and transfer technology from one of the many universities and government labs in the region.

The GCPA was recently invited to join the Chinese State Intellectual Property/U.S. Bar Association Liaison Committee, and the EPO/U.S. Bar Association Liaison Committee, which handle international patenting issues. In particular, Chinese IP protection is very difficult to achieve for many reasons. Having local representatives interacting with the Chinese patent bar to understand how to get patents allowed in China can help bring IP business to the Gulf Coast region, and international patent protection to Gulf Coast businesses.