By Josue Rosario
Patents have been a part of Puerto Rico's history since the colonial period when it was ruled by Spain. In the late 1800s, Spain implemented the Spanish Patent Law of 1878, which established the groundwork for intellectual property protection in the territory. However, Puerto Rico's status as a Spanish colony was brief, as it became a U.S. possession after the Spanish-American War in 1898.
This transfer of sovereignty meant that Puerto Rico came under U.S. jurisdiction, leading to a new legal framework for intellectual property. Under the U.S. administration, patent rights were extended to Puerto Rico through the Patent and Copyright Clause of the U.S. Constitution, making the island subject to U.S. patent law. Puerto Rico's legal system is a combination of the civil law legal system employed in Spain and the common law legal system used in the United States but still follows the U.S. federal system for intellectual property purposes.
Most of the patents issued during the colonial period in the 19th and 20th centuries were related to the process of cultivating sugar cane and coffee beans. Patent applications were sent on sailboats, meaning that inventors had no way of knowing if their patent application was issued until they received a letter from the U.S. Patent Office acknowledging their invention and granting patent rights.
The first Puerto Rican to receive a US Patent was Juan Ramos, from Ponce, who while a subject of Spain’s Queen Isabella, patented the process for improvement of sugar cane juice (U.S. Patent No. 9,087) granted on June 29, 1855, also known as “Guarapo” and assigned it to James Gallagher and William Tirado. Juan figured that adding plantain-stalk juice and quicklime defecates the solids within sugar cane juice when making sugar.
Antonio Mariani, from Yauco, was issued the first-ever U.S. patent after the Spanish-American War. His invention, patent No. 798,612, was issued on September 5, 1905, and relates to improvements in machines for planting' sugar cane, the object being to provide a planter of simple and comparatively inexpensive construction by means of which ground excavations for receiving the shoots or lengths of cane may be quickly and evenly made and the dirt covered over the cane.
Since approximately 2006, the economy of Puerto Rico has been struggling to recover from a state of inertia. Additionally, the island has been severely impacted by natural disasters such as Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, which has further hindered economic progress. However, despite fiscal challenges, many Puerto Ricans have taken a proactive approach seeking innovative paths to success. This proactive mindset has led to the growth of creative industries, which include areas such as telecommunications, arts, design, urban planning, architecture, media, and web development. This emerging sector has become a crucial component of the economy, constantly seeking new opportunities despite the ongoing fiscal and economic crisis. These continuous financial and economic obstacles have directly affected potential investments in the local market, ultimately hindering innovation and the development of intellectual property, particularly in the context of patent applications.
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To address the "patent gap," the Puerto Rico Science, Technology and Research Trust established the Technology Transfer Office (TTO) in 2016. The TTO partners with Puerto Rico's universities, scientists, and researchers to identify important discoveries supported by research funding. In fiscal year 2019, Puerto Rico's universities performed $121 million in total research and development, with $79.9 million in federally funded R&D, accounting for 86% of the total in Puerto Rico.
The TTO evaluates significant research discoveries, protects intellectual property, markets globally to the private sector, and transfers technology through licensing and other agreements to the private sector. Universities that have partnered with TTO include the University of Puerto Rico System, Ana G. Méndez University System, Ponce Health Sciences University/Ponce Medical School Foundation, Universidad Central del Caribe, and San Juan Bautista School of Medicine.
The University of Puerto Rico
In 1987, the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) filed for its first patent, which was the procedure to separate two nucleic acids, now the UPR has over 90 patents that have had important economic and social impacts in the island.
The Office of Intellectual Property and Technology Transfer at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) has been granted 26 new patents in 2020, covering a diverse range of technologies. These innovations encompass critical areas like cancer prevention, the creation of capsules enabling agriculture in extraterrestrial environments such as Mars, and advancements in the realm of diving.
The journey of patent development at UPR dates back to 1987 when the institution's researchers submitted their maiden patent application, focusing on nucleic acid separation methods (patent No. 5,274,689). Today, the UPR stands as the most prominent educational establishment in the country, boasting a robust portfolio of 98 patents, each with considerable economic and societal implications.
Yahveh Comas, who has served as the director of the Intellectual Property Office for the past four years, attributes this remarkable success to the spirit of collaboration. Under his leadership, the office has actively engaged with private enterprises, trusts, and the general public. This inclusive approach has yielded notable results. Companies eager to advance specific technologies have approached the office, and reciprocally, the office has aided researchers in identifying suitable companies for technology development. Importantly, the office extends its services beyond the university, welcoming contributions and collaboration from individuals across the island.
An essential facet of the Office's work is offering guidance to inventors on the significance of securing intellectual property to enable them to generate income from their inventions. This holistic approach ensures that creators are well-informed about the process and potential benefits.
The Office employs specific criteria to evaluate the commercial viability of a patent, with a keen focus on the novelty and practicality of the technology. Simultaneously, it assesses the global impact of these innovations, underscoring the significance of their contributions on a worldwide scale.
The University of Puerto Rico is renowned for its distinguished professors and talented students who drive the cutting-edge research conducted at the institution. The UPR also boasts specialized laboratories equipped with advanced technologies not readily available in other regions of the world. Nevertheless, the pivotal aspect of their success lies in their collaborative vision, emphasizing the integral role of cooperation in technological advancement.
The biggest patent applicant from Puerto Rico is its own public higher education system (UPR). But are there any other applicants in Puerto Rican?
The short answer is yes, 32% of patent applications from Puerto Rico come from five different entities: UPR, St. Jude Medical Puerto Rico LLC, Gte Productions Corporation, Stryker Corporation and Arris Enterprise, Inc. Most of the filed patents owned by these five entities relate to biomedical procedures, chemical findings, manufacturing processes and equipment.
For instance, the University of Puerto Rico filed for patent No. 8,143,231 which is a method of reducing HIV replication in the Human Body by regulating Cystatin B which is a protein encoded by the CSTB gene. St. Jude Medical also filed a patent for a three-suture bore closure device (Patent No. 10,136,885) in 2013.
The University of Puerto Rico also filed for a patent for their invention “Mascarilla Facial Dinamica” (Patent No. 11,134,729) in 2022. The design of the mask is made to facilitate the consumption of food or drinks. The mask uses radiofrequency waves that detect when food is approaching their mouth and automatically opens the mask, making it easier to consume food while protecting yourself from viruses such as COVID-19.
In the past, patent applications from Puerto Rico rarely had an assignee or applicant who is an actual resident of the island. Mainly foreign companies file for patents from Puerto Rico but their inventors are not locally sourced.
In 2021 however, out of 321,057 filed patents in the U.S, 582 contained at least one inventor, assignee, or applicant residing in Puerto Rico, mainly from foreign companies. Ethicon was the biggest applicant with 478 patents filed in 2021 and at least one of them had a Puerto Rican woman, Yasemar Perez, as an inventor. (Patent No. 11,000,271).
As for individual patent applicants, there were 90 patents assigned to Puerto Ricans in 2021, with Ferraiuoli LLC is the biggest patent applicant firm in Puerto Rico with 10.
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