By Carly Klein
Innovations are a vehicle for social inclusion and the improvement of humanity because patents often serve as a method to democratize inventions that were once seen as elite. The US patent system allows for greater recyclability of ideas, which leads to less waste. These features create society-wide benefits that build economic, natural, and social capital into the global economy.
All patented inventions, by their very nature, must provide some improvement or benefit to humankind. This unique feature that gives patented innovations an intrinsic quality of improvement stems from strict patent eligibility requirements.
- Be a “new and useful” process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter.
- Have “utility,” or be generally useful.
- Be “novel,” or new.
- Be “non-obvious,” meaning its functionality can’t be something that is the next logical step of a previously patented prototype.
- Not already be in the domain of general knowledge or previously disclosed to the public prior to the application for the patent.
Strict subject matter eligibility standards, such as these set forth by the USPTO, provide insight into why patented inventions provide improvement to humanity. Every invention has to provide benefit or utility to be patent eligible.
A few examples of the more impactful patented inventions demonstrate the field of innovation’s capacity for positive change on a global scale. Certain technology solutions, such as in the areas of energy efficiency and agriculture provide two most notable examples of this impact.
Technology Solutions to Poverty:
- Energy Efficiency (power, mechanical, electrical storage, solar, etc.) provides a field with myriad ways in which inventions can make everyday utilities affordable, thus helping those in poverty live more enriched lives.
Invention Case Study: Solar Smelter
3 in 7 people today, around the world, lack modern fuel to cook food. On average, indoor air pollution kills 1,250 children under age 5 every day. Up to 40% of the energy budget for households around the world go directly towards heating water. Inventions to address problems are critical.
In 2010, Seattle-based inventor Martin Nix created the solar smelter, which is an efficient method of using the sun rays to cook. His invention takes the shape of a half-shell-parabolic-dish reflector, which has in front an adjustable flat planar reflector. Sunlight reflects off the flat planar reflector to the half-shell-parabolic-dish, which redirects the light to a crucible for smelting metals, which is also the focus of the sunlight.
This invention is an inexpensive utility product which allows people living in impoverished situations, especially in parts of the world where there might be a lot of sun, to have access to a method of cooking food. Nix subsequently founded non-profit organization Solar Smelters International. His organization is dedicated to providing high temperature solar energy applications for those in need, and to educating the public about safe methods to harness the solar process of heat.
A similar organization, Solar Cookers International, brings solar cooking methods like the Solar Smelter to sun-rich, fuel-scarce regions, most notably in Africa. Solar-based utility methods provide ways for locals to improve their health, feel a sense of empowerment, and preserve their environments. In its 30 years of work, Solar Cookers has identified 3.2+ million solar cookers, directly benefiting 11.5+ million people living in poverty.
Regarding empowerment, many of those in situations of global poverty utilize solar cookers for cultural and hospitality activities, such as preparation of hot drinks like tea and coffee. Additionally, solar cookers can be used for health-related purposes. In a project in West Africa, volunteers bringing solar cookers saw that participants did not use solar equipment for cooking, but instead for distillation of water for batteries and sterilization of medical equipment.
The far-reaching impacts of solar heating equipment demonstrate how a patented invention such as the Solar Smelter, which derived from a relatively simple concept, can have remarkable benefits to reduce the harm that those living in poverty face on a daily basis.
Click here to learn about how solar cooking aligns with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals about the eradication of global poverty.
- Food Tech/Agriculture is a field where emerging crop varieties, new equipment, and cultivation methods offer more affordable and sustainable access to food across the world.
Invention Case Study: Near-Infrared Spectroscopy for Soil Analysis
This 2016 patent application relates to a method for soil sampling for agriculture, more specifically for classification of soil characteristics. This patent disclosure relates to a nutrient planning system and method which allows novice farmers to create high quality crop-nutrition plans that enable sustainable, efficient, and traceable food production.
One of the outputs of this specific patented system is that it can provide estimates for soil texture, and the proportions of sand, silt, and clay in a single soil sample. These are factors that farmers can use in their year-round decision making. Moreover, this patent provides an inexpensive method of determining soil texture, water-holding capacity, and soil quality.
This method, and methods like these, are incredible new innovations in the field of sustainable agriculture. The technology is eco-friendly, inexpensive, and fast. It can be used by farmers to increase food output in areas where soil data, and knowledge of what and when to plant, is severely lacking. One of these areas, where organizations have begun to bring near-infrared spectroscopy for soil analysis technology, is Sub-Saharan Africa.
The Africa Soil Information Service is developing strategies for content-wide soil maps for sub-Saharan Africa utilizing new analytics, statistics and field trials. ASIS recently launched a 250-meter resolution soil-properties map of Africa to help Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria and Tanzania establish national soil information systems and services based on soil spectroscopy and digital soil-mapping technology. You can find their most recent Africa Soil Profiles Database here.
Digital soil mapping can be used for sustainable agricultural intensification and natural resources management. Organizations and companies can bring these new soil-mapping technologies to farmers in developing areas and impoverished communities to ensure that their soil and landscape resources are described, understood and used effectively. The result of the implementation of this technology could raise agricultural productivity and lower ecological footprints in these areas.
Broader Effects of Innovation and the Biggest Caveat
By offering market exclusivity, patents provide incentives for inventors to create and share their ideas. When inventors patent their ideas, the world gains new innovations and humanity has access to less expensive and higher quality goods. In this way, innovation often takes place to democratize what is once seen as elite.
However, there is a big caveat, says JD Houvener, Founder & CEO of Bold Patents. The underlying force that is perhaps causing more poverty in the world is that while inventions and patents are making our world better and more efficient, the world is getting more and more crowded. In simple terms: inventing is helping to feed 2 people where we used to only be able to feed 1, but the world is now 3 times as populated.
This is an issue to think about worldwide but in the US, plant inventors are trying to find ways to produce 2x as much fruit to meet the needs of 3x more people. This underlying issue of population growth may spark a sense of urgency for innovators, because if we fall behind, it could be catastrophic. In the meantime, everyone should think twice about their consumption, and brainstorm ways they can innovate to meet the ever-increasing needs of the global population.
Carly Klein is a law student at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. A graduate from Boston University with a B.A. in Political Science & Philosophy, she has experience in marketing, communications, and sales. She is a Los Angeles native and seeks to pursue a career in IP & Business Litigation.
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