IP Hall of Fame interviews: Andrei Iancu
A reforming former USPTO director and former managing partner at law firm Irell & Manella.
How did you feel when you were nominated for the position and what motivated you to take it up?
For many years, I have been involved in the IP profession and heavily involved in the landscape. I noticed like many others that the system faces challenges and I thought that I could help bring a bit more balance to it and change the dialogue surrounding IP rights.
Another consideration is more personal. I am an immigrant and everything I have achieved here is the result of the generosity and openness of the American people. What I have done here would not have been possible in many other places. I wanted to give back a little bit. And where better for an IP lawyer to do public service than at the USPTO.
What are your proudest achievements from your time as USPTO director?
One is to have changed the dialogue around intellectual property; to have a pro-innovation, pro-IP dialogue that is focused on the great benefits of innovation and the genius of inventors. I think we did a lot of that during my time at the USPTO, but maintaining a dialogue is a continuous process. We have to remain vigilant.
We also focused on expanding the innovation ecosystem to include as many people in it as possible, both demographically and geographically. We created the National Council for Expanding Innovation, to bring more women and minorities into the fold.
We did a lot of things to balance the system and bring more clarity to it. Our guidance on Section 101 from 2019 I think greatly clarified that area of law. We know from our chief economist that the inconsistency of examination results for patentable subject matter has gone down by 41% in the technology areas where Section 101 comes up the most.
Of course, on the operational side, the USPTO is a large organisation with a $3.5 billion budget and 13,000 people. Its efficient management is important, and we did many things to improve the IT infrastructure: upgrading our servers and networks, adding AI tools to assist our examiners and so many other things. You saw the effects of that when we went to full time telework during the pandemic – the office did not miss a beat, efficiency did not go down at all.
What were the most challenging aspects of the role?
Running any major entity there are operational challenges and it is important to optimise performance within budgetary constraints. Having said that the office is very well run by its career employees.
I think the major challenge for any director is to achieve the proper balance within the IP system. Because there is only one system, it has to work for everyone, the big companies and the small companies, the high-tech sector, the biotech sector and every sector in between; for the rights owners and other users of technology. So you have to work hard to achieve the right balance.
To do this, I had an open-door policy, met with many stakeholders, listened to everyone I could, then tried to do things that I thought achieved the most appropriate balance between different sectors of our economy. Where do you strike the balance for this one system? There are no easy answers. It is a continuous process.
What makes a good leader of a government organisation?
My view is, especially where you are working with some of the world’s most creative folks, it is important to recognise the abilities of all the professionals around you and to encourage participation from as many people as possible. Surround yourself with smart people. Listen to them. Encourage them to speak up and disagree with you when discussing new proposals. Create an environment of collaborative participation.
In addition, you should create a culture of excellence, where people are proud to work there.
How much of this transfers to being a law firm managing partner? Are these two very different forms of leadership?
To be frank, almost all of it transfers. When you work with highly skilled professionals, it is similar in private practice, in government institutions, in a small law firm or a large agency. When you are working with professionals, what I said before always applies. The underlying principles of collaboration, trust and respect for others’ ideas works in many environments; certainly it has worked for me.
Do you have any IP heroes from the leaders you worked with in the early stages of your career?
In my legal career I worked with various partners, but in particular Morgan Chu – one of the best trial lawyers in the United States – is someone I have learnt so much from.
Before then, when I was an engineer, I had the privilege to work with some very smart people and learn from them.
As a general principle, I advise young folks to always seek out mentors and learn as much from them as you can. Young people may be surprised to find out that senior people are usually eager to help and teach. Seek those people out early and often.
My other advice for young professionals is, whatever you do, be all in. Take ownership of your career, be fully committed, especially in the IP field. It is the best field to be in as a lawyer. What a privilege to be able to work with some of the world’s most brilliant people and most creative minds. Enjoy what you are doing. Be fully committed. Working hard doesn’t hurt either.
What can political leadership do to help spread the culture of innovation further?
That is a very important question. Political leadership as well as leaders in the innovation ecosystem need to continuously speak about the great benefits of innovation, its direct impact on the economy, job creation and the overall improvement of the human condition, and then demonstrate the link between a robust IP system and the innovation economy. It is important for the general public to understand the necessary role intellectual property plays. A continuous positive dialogue.
Of course, any system has problems and those should be identified and addressed, but the overall direction of public discourse for the incredible system we have had for a few hundred years should be on its positive side.