Express Lane for Green Patents Can Help Startups

Global leaders settle in this week to negotiate a climate agreement in Copenhagen at the U.N. summit that the vice-president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s intellectual property center has called “the [Intellectual Property] battle of the year.” Meanwhile, the Obama Administration has taken a step that could have more immediate implications for startups hoping to finance and grow businesses based on proprietary green technology: Some 3,000 applications for patents on clean technologies will be fast-tracked through the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office in a pilot program meant to reduce the typical review time for these patents to 12 months, down from the current average of 40 months.

Cutting that review time comes as part of an effort to accelerate the process for “inventors to secure funding, create businesses, and bring vital green technologies into use much sooner,” according to the patent office’s release. Securing patents in an often laborious and expensive process can give some startups an important lever to pull, as Celeste has written over at GigaOM Pro (subscription required), in the competition for venture capital investment, joint venture partners, and other opportunities to grow businesses in a challenging market environment.

“There’s a direct correlation between IP protection and the flow of capital, particularly for smaller companies,” Scott Faris, CEO of battery developer Planar Energy Devices, told us in an interview earlier this year. “If we’re doing cutting-edge stuff, we have to carve out a defensible stake with enough time to build up. That’s what investors look at: How defensible is your position?”

Pilot: First 3,000 green applications

According to the patent office, as many as 25,000 applications already in the system could qualify for the expedited process. But solid targets at Copenhagen for reducing national and global greenhouse gas emissions, and the creation next year of a binding agreement for these reductions, could deliver a significant uptick in those numbers. History offers a model: An explosion of patents for technologies to control sulfur dioxide emissions followed passage of the Clean Air Act, according to researchers at Carnegie Mellon and noted by the Environmental Defense Fund last year.

Under the pilot program, only “the first 3,000 applications related to green technologies in which a proper petition is filed,” will go through the accelerated process. (Details on how to get in on the program will be published on the USPTO web site.) From there, the patent office says it “will examine ways to continue and expand the initiative.” So the pilot program may offer lessons as to how a potential influx of greentech patent filings can be handled more efficiently.

A full stable of patents, however, does not necessarily represent make-or-break for companies these days. As Alan Salzman, CEO and managing partner of VantagePoint Venture Partners told us in an interview last summer, shortly after he returned from a separate Copenhagen summit designed to align the business community to address changing climate policies: “In a world that’s innovating quickly, the life cycle of IP is short.”

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