Patents for Humanity: improving lives across the globe

Author:Edward Elliott
Position:Attorney Advisor, Patents for Humanity Program Manager, United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), USA

*Authored by an employee of the United States Patent and Trademark Office; no copyright is claimed by the United States in this article or associated materials. As this year’s World Intellectual Property Day theme recognizes, innovation has the power to improve lives. People in industrialized countries benefit from innovation every day – from faster computers, more powerful mobile phones,... (see full summary)


But not everyone is so lucky. Impoverished populations in developing regions and elsewhere struggle with basic necessities like clean water, adequate nutrition and medical care. These regions often do not attract the same attention from innovators, for reasons that include scarcity of capital, lack of infrastructure, low levels of education, insufficient legal protections and a host of other factors. That is not to say innovation does not happen in these regions – clearly it does, because humans everywhere are innovative creatures. But the market mechanisms that are so effective in deploying innovation in advanced economies come up against unfamiliar challenges when it comes to reaching the less fortunate around the globe.

Patents for Humanity is a United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) awards program that recognizes innovators who overcome these challenges to bring life-changing technologies to those in need. Its purpose is twofold. First, it highlights success stories so that others can learn how to reach underserved communities. Second, by providing value to award winners, the program seeks to offset some of the diminished commercial incentives in these regions, thereby encouraging more innovation projects aimed at helping impoverished communities. This value includes public recognition of winners’ work and a voucher for accelerating certain matters before the USPTO.

Program structure

Participants submit applications describing how they are using patented technology to benefit the less fortunate in five broad categories of humanitarian need: medicine, nutrition, sanitation, energy and living standards. Once the application period closes, we run a two-phase selection process with volunteer experts from outside the USPTO, including university faculty and technology transfer professionals, to review the entries according to program criteria. The review committee then sends a list of recommended award winners to the USPTO.

The first Patents for Humanity competition launched in early 2012 as a pilot program. Since then, it has attracted support from the White House and members of the U.S. Congress as well as many companies, trade associations, public interest groups and universities. In 2014, the USPTO announced that Patents for Humanity would be an ongoing program. Subsequent rounds of Patents for Humanity awards were made in April 2015 and most recently November 2016.


To date, Patents for Humanity has given 21 awards...

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