John Baker, founder of Cleanzy Sponge, is enjoying good reviews and commercial success with his fledgling product, a no-hands alternative to bottle cleaning brushes.
The entrepreneur would not have made it without help from Twin Cities-based LegalCorps patent pro bono program. It targets small inventors, disproportionately women and people of color, who otherwise couldn't afford the arduous, expensive process of earning a patent through the U.S. Patent Office.
"LegalCorps allowed me to learn along the way without costing a fortune, and I was able to redistribute funds toward product development, brand awareness and e-commerce growth," he said. "The patent was recently approved by the [Patent Office] and allows me to take the growth of Cleanzy to the next level."
Last week, Derrick Brent, U.S. deputy undersecretary of commerce for intellectual property, addressed the Pathways to Inclusive Innovation conference at the University of Minnesota that brought together inventors, business developers, patent lawyers and others to celebrate 100 patents issued over a decade to area small entrepreneurs.
"Minnesota has been a shining model because of the dedication of the lawyers in the community providing pro bono service," said Brent, also an engineer and patent lawyer. "We're putting a spotlight on entrepreneurs and the resources available.''
Getting a patent issued can take a couple of years and $10,000 or more for small inventors. And female entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color tend to be undercapitalized.
"There is support and we're looking at a more inclusive ecosystem and here's a way to join in at minimal cost if you are under-resourced," Brent said.
The Pro Bono Patent Program operates through 23 regional programs, including LegalCorps, and works with outfits such as Brown Venture Group, Launch Minnesota, Forge North, Bank of America, BETA and University of Minnesota MN Cup. LegalCorps provides free assistance in non-litigation business law.
The patent office says women are 13% of U.S. inventors. However, 43% of those who use its regional pro bono services, including LegalCorps, are women. In addition, 35% identify as Black, 14% as Hispanic American and 5.7% as Asian American.
Jim Patterson, founder of Minneapolis-based intellectual-property firm Patterson Thuente, started the patent pro bono program at LegalCorps after he met with the director of the Patent Office at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in 2010.
"Lawyering is a profession and we are obligated to give back," said Patterson, also a U.S. Naval Academy-minted engineer.
As many as 70 of the 150 volunteer LegalCorps lawyers are engaged annually on intellectual property projects in which the inventor seeks to protect the technology or process from being copied. After a patent is achieved, those lawyers often help the clients with commercial connections.
"This is about attorneys who believe in their profession and want to lift up all of us," Patterson said. "We codify the information about your technology, get a patent and help get it commercialized. It's rewarding to see some of these small entrepreneurs and inventors get traction in our economy."
Abenezer Ayana, an immigrant and rookie software architect at Accenture, has been working in his free time with others on a novel technology to improve Braille literacy for the blind. "We've created a working prototype and just got a patent," he said.
Ayana's team met with LegalCorps through a University of St. Thomas connection. "Our team came from low-income backgrounds," he said. "LegalCorps was invaluable."
Lynn Pingol, a construction industry veteran whose MaKee Co. helps women and minority contractors secure contracts, recently benefitted from a LegalCorps IP lawyer.
Pingol also has invented a software application for a second small business, called DBECenter.com. It connects businesses to contractors through a "procurement data management system and method" that uses codes that drill down to a specific task, such as concrete foundations or sidewalks.
"It gives the small businesses a platform on which they can be found," Pingol said.
Minneapolis IP lawyer Daniel Bruzzone referred Pingol to LegalCorps and did her DBECenter patent work pro bono. She recently was notified that the patent will soon be awarded to protect her work.
Pingol, a single mom, decided to move to the Twin Cities after getting a MnDOT contract for MaKee while also working on the new venture with son Keegan, 21, and her late daughter.
She moved after the Las Vegas murder of her 21-year-old daughter, MaKayla Rhiner, by a former boyfriend who was sentenced to life in prison in 2018.
"My daughter had died and I was struggling at the bottom of the pit,'' Pingol said. "Daniel and LegalCorps saved the patent. I was going to shelve the project."