In August of 1998, Dr. Michael J. Heller, a founder of San Diego-based Nanogen Inc., applied for a patent on a method he and a colleague discovered for synthesizing molecular structures.
In early 2008, after more than nine years and tens of thousands of dollars in costs, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office finally approved the patent. The belated approval didn’t end up doing much good for Nanogen.
The company, which used nanotechnology in medical diagnostics, filed for bankruptcy in May of this year, and laid off 89 employees in June.
It is highly doubtful that the patent — had it been awarded in a more timely fashion — would have in itself saved the company from bankruptcy. But it certainly could have helped, said Heller, who left the company several years ago and is now a professor of bioengineering at the University of California, San Diego’s Jacobs School of Engineering.
“There is no question that it hurts — it is just taking too long and too much money,” he said. “When you are in the high-tech arena you have to get your stuff patented early. You wait too long and everyone will end up knowing the technology.”
Nanogen’s experience is just one example of how the process of getting a patent is now longer and more drawn out than it ever has been. A voiceofsandiego.org analysis of more than 1,500 patents awarded to individuals and entities in San Diego County last year showed that inventors had, on average, a three-and-a-half year wait from the time they applied for a patent until they got it. That is twice as long as the 18-month benchmark that the patent office has historically set for itself.