Cobots And Value Added Tasks

Collaborative robots (cobots) are designed to be easy to program and re-program, easily move between one facility location and another, and have a low upfront cost.  They are designed to work with, not replace humans.  At last week’s Coffee with Cobots, commercialization and partnership expert David McFeeters-Krone, in partnership with Oregon and Washington’s Manufacturers Extension Partnership programs and Bill Smart of Oregon State discussed the application of cobots to help expand the workforce and service the unmet needs created by the expected 2 million unfilled manufacturing job vacancies expected over the next ten years.  In under a minute, it was possible to program the cobots available at the meeting to execute simple tasks.  Oregon State has a charter to help local industry and is available to partner with local industries to establish a proof of concept for the use of these robots.  Do you have dangerous, dirty, dull or hard tasks at your facility? Consider how cobots can assist your manufacturing process and allow you to place your humans in more interesting and value-added tasks.

 McCoy Russell is a leading firm in the intellectual property space around robotics, with significant experience in areas ranging from autonomous vehicles to cobots.  John Russell, one of the firm’s partners, completed his Master’s at the University of Californa, Berkeley Robotics and Human Engineering Lab that was at the forefront of human-assisting robots using force feedback control. Understanding current research and development on cobots and how facilities are using them allows us to help our clients obtain important patent protection for their business.  Besides, cobots are fun. 

Reefer Madness

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The burgeoning marijuana industry is witnessing incredible growth as the previously forbidden fruit becomes legal in an increasing number of states.  While the public is quick to adopt its legalization, other sectors are slow to adapt and the USPTO is no exception.  

            Early internet patents predicting various ways in which the internet would be used are now viewed as overly broad and the USPTO has swung the pendulum in the opposite direction (hello Section 101 rejections). Marijuana patents appear to be in a similar phase; it’s hard to say what is overly broad for a new product.  However, unlike the internet, marijuana has been known and tested, with many experiments occurring in the last century.  This presents an interesting issue - companies may patent previously known compositions, strands, and the like with little consequence, for now, as documentation of marijuana experimentation was minimal and possibly incriminating. 

            One example of such a case is going through the courts.  United Cannabis Corp is accusing Pure Hemp Collective Inc. of infringing a patent covering a liquid formulation with a high concentration of CBD.  People in the industry believe that the United Cannabis Corp patent, if maintained, could apply to most of the CBD products on the market, despite the fact that highly concentrated CBD formulations have been known before this millennium. 

            The marijuana industry is expected to reach about $75 billion by 2030, and patents will play a large part in who the big players in the industry will be, meaning that patents may dictate who gets to compete for those billions.  It will be fascinating to see how the patent side of a laid-back, laissez-faire culture shapes.  Will there be enough documentation from decades of marijuana research to limit new marijuana patents?  With so much money at stake, it is safe to say patenting early and often should be high on the priority list for all marijuana companies. 

Elementary, my dear examiner!

 

In the current MPEP guidelines for assessing patentability under 35 U.S.C. 101, there are listed four categories of judicial exceptions: i) abstract ideas; ii) laws of nature; iii) natural phenomena; and iv) natural products. Thus, for pedagogical example, one might discount numerical counting under category (i),  the laws of thermodynamics under category (ii), lightning under category (iii), and the chemical elements under category (iv).

Actually, about that last case. Not every chemical element is a natural product. Only 90 of the 118 known elements occur in appreciable amounts in nature. The rest are, by and large, artificially synthesized. Where, then, is the judicial exception in obtaining patents for the remaining 28? This was the question that Glenn T. Seaborg and the Atomic Energy Commission posed to the Patent Office over 50 years ago. Indeed, when the Office rejected Seaborg’s patent applications for americium (element 95) and curium (element 96), Seaborg appealed and won. The patents were duly granted under nos. 3,156,123 and 3,161,462. The first three claims within the former read:

“What is claimed is:

1. Element 95.

2. The isotope of element 95 having the mass number 241.

3. The isotope of element 95 having the mass number 242.”

The phrase “in appreciable amounts” in the previous paragraph deserves some context. Some of the remaining 28 elements were later found to occur in nature, but in such small amounts as to remain undetected until the latter half of the twentieth century. Thus, technetium (element 43), promethium (element 61), and the 26 known transuranic elements (those elements with atomic numbers greater than 92) were first known to science when they were synthesized in a lab. Later, several of the elements were subsequently found to occur in nature (as byproducts of decay processes of more common radioactive elements). In an interesting twist, this latter set of naturally-occurring elements includes americium and curium!

Since most synthetic elements are first reported in the scientific literature, future discoveries are unlikely to be claimed by patents. Additionally, the most stable isotopes of the recent elements added to the periodic table have half-lives of less than a minute. These are thus unlikely to possess practical use beyond furthering fundamental scientific knowledge. Such sentiments were echoed in the 1964 New York Times article covering Seaborg’s appeals victory, which stated that americium and curium “have no known practical uses although they are of great scientific interest in understanding the nature of matter.” Seaborg’s discoveries, however, later found widespread use in smoke detectors and medical and industrial spectrometers. Certainly the future possibilities for the newest elements are slimmer, especially within the two decades’ monopoly allotted by US law. Yet the cases of americium and curium suggest that the pursuit of fundamental and abstract science often takes strange turns into practicality and patentability.

Agribots Coming to a Farm Near You

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Pretty soon you may be getting your food lovingly grown by an agribot. Right now there is a boom in robotic development, and companies have been zeroing in their attention on agriculture to solve some big problems.

   For example, in Japan Spread Co. has developed a techno farm concept, which is essentially a smart greenhouse with robots carrying out the bulk of the heavy labor. The indoor environment of Spread Co.’s techno farm allows for micro-climate control for ideal growing conditions, and the vertical arrangement of the techno farm’s crops is extremely space efficient. Further, Spread Co.’s techno farm solves some pretty big farming challenges in Japan, as Japan has an aging population that may not be able to carry-out traditional farming practices and is an island with limited land for agriculture.

            Or, just this March, Walmart filed a patent for a robotic bee that pollinates crops, which may help to address pollination issues due to declining bee populations. These robotic bees may further help to improve an efficiency of greenhouse farming. Who knows? Maybe Walmart’s robo-bees will end up in a Spread Co. techno farm someday.

            It will be interesting to see the unique challenges agribots take on as development continues, as well as the way technology influences change in agriculture. At this rate, the day in a life of a farmer may be completely transformed in the next decade. In the meantime, we are along for the ride as the agribot IP space is heating up.

Snails Get the Spa Treatment

Snail mucin has been having a moment in skin products over the last couple of years thanks to its awesome hydrating benefits. With the uptick in demand for snail mucin though, where are companies getting all of the slime from? Turns out, specialized collection devices have been developed to assist snail farmers in harvesting snail mucin. As just one example, European Application Number EP20160202140 is a patent application to a specialized device for snail mucin production and collection.

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            The device of EP20160202140 has an enclosed chamber with a basket inside, and the snails are placed in the basket and washed. Then, the collection device creates a spa-like environment, referred to as a “sauna”, using a special solution in the chamber (e.g., stimulating solution, sterilized water or ozonated water). The snail sauna, which is not so hot as to harm the snails, triggers the snails to produce slime. The slime is then collected and much of it is sold to beauty companies.

            The best part is that this collection approach has a low impact on the snails. So the snails are collected and sent back to the farm, where they can eat and rest until the next collection. As we see time and time again, unique problems call for unique solutions!

Large-scale scientific experiments and the need for more exemptions like the Hatch-Waxman exception in Patent Law

Oceanography is a fascinating field of study, encompassing knowledge from a variety of scientific and engineering disciplines.  Notable pioneering efforts in oceanography have been recognized from countries across the globe although tribute must be given to the great Jacques Cousteau for the popularization of oceanography in the eyes of the general public.  His books, films, and conservation efforts have revealed the wonders of the oceans for countless children and adults alike.

In the 1980s, John Martin’s seminal work out of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute fueled the idea of seeding algal blooms with iron, aka iron fertilization, into becoming a feasible solution to the issue of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels.  The results of his studies on mapping the oceanic distribution of nutrients essential for algal proliferation confirmed the presence of large regions that are low in iron levels with respect to macronutrients such as nitrate, phosphate, and silicate.   Such regions are found in the subarctic North Pacific, equatorial Pacific, and Southern Oceans, and described as iron-limited, with regards to biological productivity, as the pelagic macronutrient concentrations in these regions are similar to those found in coastal waters but iron levels are significantly lower.   Oceanographers have labeled these areas as High-Nutrient Low Chlorophyll (HNLC) regions, due to the unusually low algal populations in spite of the abundance of macronutrients.

            These findings sparked the idea of iron fertilization: by artificially enriching the HNLC regions with iron, algal blooms may be initiated, drawing down atmospheric CO2 through the surface boundary layer of the ocean where photosynthetic algae amass.  The carbon from the CO2 is incorporated into the algal biomass and ultimately the algae die and sink to the ocean bottom, essentially sequestering carbon into the ocean sediment.  Several expeditions took place between 1995-2012, in an international effort to test this hypothesis.  Each experiment involved dumping tons of iron, often in the form of iron sulfate, into a patch of an HNLC region and monitoring biological activity, nutrient levels, CO2 levels, etc. 

            An interesting consequence of undertaking of such large-scale experiments has been a commercial interest in developing iron fertilization into a viable solution to climate change.  A number of start-ups have patented various aspects of iron fertilization including methods for introducing iron to ocean waters (US6056919, US6200530), apparatuses for iron release (US20130006445, US20110282773) and processes for monitoring the effects of enriching ocean waters with iron (WO2016090478). 

            The results of the iron fertilization experiments have generated inconclusive results.  There have been no definitive correlations between increased algal biomass and atmospheric CO2 levels.  Furthermore, initiating algal blooms may result in disruptions between the careful balances within trophic ladders such as relationships between types of algae and the organisms that eat them, oxygen levels in the surface layer, biogeochemical cycles in marine systems, as well as elevated levels of algal byproducts including nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas.  In short, altering one factor in the marine environment could unknowingly trigger a plethora of undesirable consequences that could be disastrous.  Preventing others from experimenting with such iron fertilization techniques (such as through patent protection), further studies to better understand potential effects cannot be conducted using those particular techniques at the specific location.  As each marine ecosystem is intricate and unique, it is difficult to fully understand the highly dependent web of relationships between flora, fauna, and chemical makeup of the local waters without prior careful monitoring and analysis by scientists and engineers.

            While US patent law provides a research exemption with respect to drug development through the Hatch-Waxman exemption (as confirmed by the Supreme Court in the 2005 Merck v. Integra case), it does not expressly provide a statutory exception for oceanic research. 

            While the protection of intellectual property is important and may be an invaluable factor in implementing technological advances, when it comes to processes established by nature, we are often still neophytes.  Hopefully, the realization that natural processes are far more complex than realized will eventually bring about the additional of statutory updates enabling research to continue unobstructed with regard to our oceans. 

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