In partnership with USPTO Patent and Trademark Resource Centers, Historically Black Colleges and Universities make lasting patent gains

2024 headlines trumpet an escalating refrain of accomplishment and far-reaching impact by historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs):

March 6: Morehouse School of Medicine announces Team SAMBAI, awarded a $25 million grant. The global SAMBAI (Societal, ancestry, molecular and biological analyses of inequalities) team received the first grant of its kind awarded to a historically Black college and medical school. Led by a Black woman, researcher Dr. Melissa Davis, the revolutionary project will study cancer disparities among people of African descent.

March 19: Morgan State University achieves record high for single-year patents awarded, topping all HBCUs nationwide. The university set a record among all HBCUs with the highest number of patent awards in a calendar year. MSU secured 13 patents in 2023, surpassing the previous HBCU record of 11.

March 29: Florida A&M University opens its Chevron STR²EAM Innovation Fab Lab. The design studio is equipped with cutting-edge technology, including 3D printing, laser and vinyl cutting, and electronic workspaces.

HBCUs have played a crucial role in advancing intergenerational economic mobility for Black families and communities throughout generations. Additionally, HBCUs have been instrumental in fostering innovation and intellectual property (IP) development. A late 2021 report by ThePlug said HBCUs accounted for almost 400 U.S. patents.

The USPTO is encouraging these historic achievements through its Patent and Trademark Research Centers (PTRC).

PTRCs are part of a national network of public, state, and academic libraries designated by the USPTO to offer trademark and patent assistance to the public. These local centers support the IP needs of the public by providing a human touch.

PTRC library staff are local information experts trained by the USPTO on how to use search tools to access information and help people navigate their patent and trademark journey. Services include online resources, research consultations, and workshops to share information on the importance of IP.

Four HBCU libraries have been designated as PTRCs to help empower underserved communities:

• Howard University’s Founders Library, designated on December 8, 1986.

• John B. Cade Library at Southern University and A&M College, designated on October 12, 2023.

• John B. Coleman Library at Prairie View A&M University, designated on October 16, 2023.

• Miller F. Whittaker Library at South Carolina State University, designated on December 6, 2023.

In an attempt to expand the number of PTRCs across the United States, Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and USPTO Director Kathi Vidal issued letters to 600 libraries across the country, including all HBCUs, inviting each institution to consider becoming PTRCs to assist local innovators.

The USPTO combines with the USPTO Chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and the Howard University College of Engineering and Architecture and the College of Computer Science to encourage minority faculty to promote a culture of innovation, and create IP awareness by adding and integrating IP to certain courses.

The USPTO’s NSBE Chapter helps to develop and deliver the program, which introduces students to IP concepts, such as patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets; provides students with interactive challenges to incorporate the various aspects of IP; shares information on IP careers in and out of the USPTO, and provides information about diverse resources provided by the USPTO.

“Patents and trademarks are key to establishing ownership rights to inventions and brands that bring tangible economic benefits to their owners,” Vidal said. “We are committed to increasing the number of PTRCs at HBCUs and educational programs across the country to ensure that Black creators, inventors, and entrepreneurs have access to these key resources.”

Enrollments Soaring

A culture of innovation and inspiration is spawning enrollment increases at many HBCUs. Morgan State University is reaching historic numbers: a 27 percent surge since 2018, with 9,808 students attending, according to HigherEdDrive.

North Carolina A&T State University, America’s largest HBCU, had a 3 percent enrollment increase in 2023 from the previous academic year to 13,883 students. Others reporting gains include Howard University, Delaware State University, North Carolina Central University, Wilberforce University, and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

HBCU leaders attribute the gains to internal policies and practices, including new retention and recruitment efforts and academic support for incoming students. Others cite new sources of philanthropic and government funding.

Patently Progressive

Morehouse School of Medicine, a private, co-educational medical school, is the nation’s leader among HBCUs with 168 U.S. patents, per a count at Justia Patents. MSM has made significant contributions in HIV/AIDS research, with four such patents in the past 17 years. (Its home, Atlanta, is ranked third in new HIV infections nationwide.)

By contrast, North Carolina A&T State University, America’s largest HBCU by enrollment, has 20 patents.

Baltimore-based Morgan State University is on pace to be awarded an average of at least one new patent per month throughout 2024.

The USPTO granted the university’s first patent in 2016. By the end of 2023, MSU rose to the fifth-highest cumulative total of U.S. utility patents awarded to an HBCU with 32. Justia Patents lists Morgan State with 34 patents overall.