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USPTO Patents for Humanity Program Highlights COVID-19 Innovations

Patent office seeks
COVID-19 inventions
For award program

The USPTO recently announced that in 2021 the prestigious Patents for Humanity award will include only a single category, for inventions relating to COVID-19. The USPTO states that the “competition is open to any patent owners, patent applicants, or patent licensees for inventions that track, prevent, diagnose, or treat COVID-19.” The 2021 award will be more tightly focused than prior awards. Prior Patents for Humanity awards were granted for a range of patented technologies with humanitarian impact. The awards in 2020, for example, were “evaluated on the effectiveness of their technology to address humanitarian issues, the contributions made by applicants to increase the use of their technology among the impoverished, and the impact those contributions have made to improve lives.” In 2021 the USPTO has instead focused the award on the immense level of innovation directed to the pandemic response.

The 2021 Patent for Humanity award applications will be judged by either the “humanitarian use” or “humanitarian research” criteria, “depending on how their technology benefits those impacted by COVID-19.” All Patents for Humanity awards are based on the use of U.S. utility patents or pending applications. Applications for humanitarian use will be judged on criteria for “applying eligible technologies to positively impact a humanitarian issue, focusing on demonstrable real-world improvements on those impacted by COVID-19.” This appears to include inventions for medical devices and interventions used to assist medical teams with COVID-19 patients, for example. In contrast, applications for humanitarian research will be judged on criteria for making “available patented technologies to other researchers for conducting research related to COVID-19.” Applications in this category could include, for example, a patented visualization device made available for research on COVID-19 affected tissue samples.

The 2021 COVID-19 focused Patents for Humanity awards submissions opened on April 5, 2021. No end date for submissions has been announced, but in prior years the submission period lasted for a few months. More details on the submission process and criteria for the awards can be found on the USPTO website. Potential applicants should be aware that the award focuses on the use of patented or patent-pending technology, so the application requires some description of that use beyond the text of the patent or application itself. The 2021 award criteria are open to technologies that were repurposed for use as well as those developed specifically in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Patents for Humanity awardees are announced by the USPTO, are invited to an awards ceremony at the USPTO, and have their application information highlighted on the USPTO website. The award has historically also included a certificate for accelerated USPTO processing for one eligible matter, which includes patent examination, ex parte reexam, or ex parte appeal before the PTAB. In prior years the accelerated processing certificate was specific to each award winner. New to this award cycle, the certificate for accelerated processing can be transferred to a third party, and award winners can receive compensation for the transfer of a certificate. It will be interesting to see if any awards are transferred for compensation under this new option. The acceleration certificate certainly seems like it would be valuable to some parties with pending USPTO matters. Compensation for a certificate could serve as useful funding for a startup or research group award winner.

The Patents for Humanity awards began in 2013, with the first ten awards and six honorable mentions granted in 2013. Other awards were granted in 2015, 2016, 2018, and 2020. All prior awardees are listed on the Patents for Humanity website at the USPTO. The Seattle innovation community celebrated the local Global Good Fund’s Patents for Humanity award in 2016 for a device for vaccine storage in remote areas. Given the focus of the 2021 Patents for Humanity awards, we may see innovations in that same field recognized this year.

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