In addition to the Detroit location that opened July 13 — the first outside of Washington, D.C. — the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office plans to open satellite offices in Dallas, Denver and Silicon Valley.
The federal government pitches the Elijah J. McCoy USPTO location in Detroit and the other satellite offices as hubs for innovation that can create new economic opportunity, help innovators better navigate the bureaucracy involved in seeking a patent, and create talent clusters of people with an expertise in intellectual property and patents.
"Patents are the fuel for American innovation," Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank said in a statement. "By opening the doors to America's first-ever satellite patent office in Detroit, we are going to put more patents in the hands of entrepreneurs throughout this region and across the country. The McCoy office will make America's patent system stronger, empowering America's innovators to attract capital, put their business plans into action, and create more good jobs for the middle class."
Days prior to the opening, Gov. Rick Snyder called the new Detroit office a "great step toward making innovation in Michigan even easier."
But some question whether it can actually boost to the state's innovation community. Dan Girdwood, a patent attorney with Price Heneveld in Grand Rapids, is unsure.
"The patent system is much more portable than it used to be," said Girdwood, noting that many patent examiners work largely on the road. "So it doesn't matter if you show up in D.C. anymore as long as you have some quality program to make sure that your examiners are doing their job and learning the training program on the front end.
"So on the one side, I don't think it's going to do much because it doesn't matter if they're in Detroit or Los Angeles or whatever. They're still doing an evaluation of patent (applications)."
Yet on the other side, the added capacity to process and review patent applications through satellite offices and the increased awareness from the locations "just creates a little bit of interest and education and learning and use of the patent system."
"Just physically having somebody in a location somehow creates some synergies and smartness and awareness," he said.
Likewise, Phil Tepley of the Michigan Small Business Development & Technology Center sees plenty of value from the patent examiners, intellectual property experts and administrative law judges now based in Detroit. Having patent examiners out in the community and working with innovative companies and university researchers about how the patent process works "will just strengthen the area as an innovation hub."
"There will be huge indirect benefits from people meeting each other, talking to each other and sharing insight," said Tepley, the Michigan SBDTC's director of technology commercialization services. "There is just no substitute for face to face."
Michigan ranked seventh in the nation in 2011 in the number of total patents issued to individuals and businesses, with 4,397.
Since the Patent and Trademark Office wants to establish a physical presence in markets around the nation with a high level of innovation activity and a solid support network, the Detroit satellite office also makes a strong statement about Michigan, Tepley said.
"It validates that this is not just a Rust Belt state but a place for innovation," he said.
Kevin McCurren, executive director of Grand Valley State University's Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, notes that many of the patents originating in West Michigan come from corporations developing new products.
McCurren is unsure if the Detroit satellite office will lead to more innovation, although "it helps a lot of the established companies through the process."
"It will help them with the execution of the patent," McCurren said. "It will make it easier for people who want to prosecute or have to defend their patents."
Most patents originating in Michigan come out of the Detroit area, which accounted for 2,222 patents in 2010, the most recent year for which data is available, and 9,964 from 2006 to 2010, according to the Patent and Trademark Office. The Grand Rapids-Wyoming metropolitan statistical area was third in the state with 159 patents originating in the area in 2010 and 679 between 2006 and 2010.