AUSTIN — Google veteran and Silicon Valley native Michelle K. Lee is now the first Woman director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
In an unprecedented move, Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker swore in Lee on stage at SXSW Interactive on Friday.
The ceremony took place just moments after Lee delivered a speech which not only outlined her plans for the 225-year-old agency, but reminded people that the ascension is not the end of the journey for woman in tech.
“I’m deeply concerned that, 15 years into the 21st century, far too few women are getting into tech, and even fewer are staying in the field,” said Lee, noting, “There’s no doubt that women in tech face too many barriers to entry and success.”
The daughter of an electrical engineer, Lee grew up amid Silicon Valley startups and entrepreneurs and, with a knack for math and science, grew up with technology. “I built a Heath Kit radio in my living room. I didn’t realize it wasn’t what most girls do,” she told Mashable.
Lee eventually went on to study at MIT where she joined the prestigious school’s Artificial Intelligence Lab. Along the way, she found many mentors, though most were men. “Mentors do not only have to come from your gender,” said Lee, “You can learn from the opposite gender. If you wait for one of your gender, you may not find it,” she added.
After working at Fenwick and West Lee joined Google in 2003 as the company’s first head of Patents and Patent Strategy. At the time, Google was small enough that the company leadership” could “sit around a table and talk about issues.” And yes, that table included current Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, though Lee would not comment directly on her. By the time Lee left eight years later, her department had 700 employees.
Lee, who in her role as USPTO deputy director has been effectively running the agency for over a year, plans now to push the USPTO into the 21st century in more ways than one, telling the audience that they will embrace crowd sourcing to ensure that application patents are unique and they will embrace big data and open source, as well.
As someone who watched the start-up community grow in Silicon Valley and as part of it at Google, she’s said she’s particularity sensitive to the challenges cash-strapped start-ups face when trying to secure patents or fight patent challenges. “[I’m] looking carefully at the patent system as a whole, I know that start-ups are especially vulnerable to abusive patent assertions,” said Lee.
“The USPTO has a lot of data on the applications that are files and who is filing them,” Lee told Mashable. “We have an initiative to make that all public in bulk downloadable forms.” Having all that data should, Lee believes, help entrepreneurs and inventors make better business decisions. Releasing this data is part of a larger effort by the USPTO and the Obama Administration, said Lee, for greater transparency.
Part of that effort does include education, Lee said the USPTO is opening four satellite offices in Dallas, Denver, Silicon Valley and Detroit where, she hopes, they can educate entrepreneurs and inventors on the work they do and the basics of intellectual property.
Of course, there is no denying that today is not only a big day for Lee, it’s an important one for women. Lee told us she’s “super excited” to be the first woman sworn into this position “in the country’s 250 year history.” And she believes SXSW is the absolute right place to hold her swearing-in ceremony. “This is not the normal way a swearing in occurs, but this is the innovation community. This shows the importance the Obama administration puts in innovation and intellectual property and how much the administration supports diversity and women in tech.”
For all that Director Lee has accomplished, she noted that one her most rewarding experiences as the head of the USPTO was working with the Girl Scouts to issue a new, patent-focused patch. “I was a Girl Scout … I remember patches for first aid and sewing, I do not remember one for innovation and intellectual property.”
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