John Nelson received his 50th patent on June 19, but he didn’t feel much like celebrating. The biologist, who works at GE’s Global Research Center in Niskayuna, New York, had been hoping for a different kind of recognition: to have his name on the 10 millionth patent issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office under its current numbering system.
Just as he had planned months earlier, Nelson was awarded two patents on that day, but neither were number 10,000,000. That honor went to Joseph Marron of Raytheon for “Coherent Ladar Using Intra-Pixel Quadrature Detection” — a kind of radar gun that uses a laser. “It was disappointing,” says Nelson, “but I came close.”
Inventors from various GE units received a total of 36 patents that week, according Nelson’s analysis, about the average for most weeks of the year.
The two patents — and the 50-patent milestone — weren’t bad consolation prizes, however. Nelson, who joined GE in 1997, is awarded six to eight patents in a typical year, but he rejects any notion of being unique at the research center. “We’ve got a lot of idea people,” he says. “When I first came here, one of the first things I did was try to find as many of these idea people as I could. I have a list that says here’s what this person is really good at, and here’s what that person is really good at.”
When he sees a problem, he can quickly assemble a team of colleagues to look for solutions. “A lot of patents come out of brainstorm sessions, where you put a bunch of smart people in a room, and you talk about a problem for a while,” he says.
Patent 10,000,742, “Sample Collection and Quality Control for Blood-borne Pathogens,” started with just such an innovation session with two co-inventors. The problem was how to improve on an earlier invention, a chemically treated paper that stabilizes DNA molecules, allowing biologists to preserve a blood sample simply by dabbing it on paper rather than having to fill a test tube.
The team wanted to take the invention a step further by finding a way to stabilize RNA molecules, as well, and inactivate any live virus that is in the blood sample. This would allow a scientist working with a dangerous pathogen such as Ebola to work with a sample on paper without having to take extensive precautions normally required for handling live viruses. “We already had a product that stores DNA, and now we wanted a product that stores RNA, and yet some of our customers were concerned with getting infections from the nasty material that they’re dealing with,” Nelson says. “So we sat and talked about what chemistry we can include that would kill RNA viruses so that you wouldn’t get infected with HIV that might be on that piece of paper.”
Nelson’s other new patent, number 9,999,856, “Methods of Electroelution of Biomolecules,” required an even more diverse team comprising six co-inventors. The problem was to automate the extraction of DNA from a tissue sample. The idea was to take advantage of the fact that the phosphate portion of a DNA molecule has a negative charge, and somehow use an electrical field to separate the DNA from other molecules in a sample suspended in liquid.
To come up with a patent, they needed someone on the team who understood the biology of cells and how DNA can be manipulated in an electric field. They needed people who knew how to make a tiny device that could contain the sample and extract the DNA that had collected around the electrode. They needed experts who could come up with an alternative to platinum electrodes, which would have been too expensive for a disposable product. GE chemists came up with an electrically conductive paper and then figured out how to keep bubbles from forming and clogging the device. “It was totally cool,” says Nelson. “It took a lot of chemistry. You need chemists for that.”
Nelson says that this kind of work “has to happen on a cross-functional team where you can have critical mass for all these different areas of expertise. There aren’t many places like GRC around in the world that have critical mass in biology, microfluidics, micronano structural technologies, and 3D printing — we 3D printed some of our parts for this thing!”
“The nice thing,” he says, “is that everyone we need is here.”