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Technology Transfer MBA Intern Clears Pathway to Patent for Inventors


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logoWhen a vendor delivered a security-related item for a facility at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge last year, it was exactly what was ordered. The problem was, it no longer would work as Security intended because of the facility’s unique design, said Project Manager Donna Vickery of Safeguards, Security, and Emergency Services (SS&ES). There were no other commercial options readily available that would match the needs, given the size and shape of space that had already been allotted.

Needing a solution fast, Vickery contacted Y-12 engineer Bobby Brown. They studied various doors and hatches and even visited the original vendor so they could brainstorm ideas for a solution. Later Vickery’s happenstance observance of a garage door gave her an idea. “I helped her develop the mechanics of how a new latching mechanism could operate within the unalterable space constraints,” Brown said. Their successful redesign “saved Y-12 a lot of money,” Vickery added. “When you cannot change the shape or size of something, and still have to change the way it functions, you can have rapidly escalating costs simply coming up with a solution.”

When someone asked Vickery about possible patent significance, it wasn’t long before Technology Transfer intern Brad White, armed with the inventors’ photos and engineering drawings, was researching existing patents and determining potential consumers of the product.
“I learned to apply a critical eye with regard to patent research,” said White, an MBA student at the University of Tennessee, which works with Y-12 contractor B&W Y-12 to place interns at the site. “Unless it’s novel, it cannot be pursued.”

“We didn’t invent something from scratch but came up with something Y-12 specifically needed,” said Vickery. The co-inventors didn’t know if their redesign qualified for a patent and didn’t have the time to do the research to find out. “If it wasn’t for Brad, we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere with it,” she said. His guidance throughout the preparation of the invention disclosure form kept her on track in providing the right amount of detail for the technology to be evaluated. Vickery could identify with SS&ES coworker Patrick Thomas, another Y-12 inventor who, like herself, was neither an engineer nor a scientist. “Whoever thought Security would be turning in invention stuff?” she said. ”Normally, we just provide guidance to people on how to do things securely and then go on our way.”

Filing for a patent is not easy but with perseverance, it’s possible, she continued, noting that it is “cool of Y-12” to provide MBA assistants to help. “Most people are too busy to go do the research. That’s why Brad was so perfect. He looked at a lot of older existing designs currently used hereā€¦.We’re thankful we had someone like him to do the paperwork and get through all the legalese.”

“It’s an awesome thing” to be a part of the invention process, she continued. Now assigned to the team designing a new Uranium Processing Facility at Y-12, she believes she will be more alert to what new products or processes are needed and will share this experience with other people. The main goal, she stressed, is to be sure that if something truly unique is created, Y-12 gets the credit it deserves.

“If you feel passionate about your idea,” Brown advised, “make sure you document your assumptions, investigate alternatives, and proceed cautiously. A good place to start is with your supervisor.” White emphasized, “You have nothing to lose. Worst-case scenario: Your invention’s already been done. Best case: You may have invented the next light bulb. There’s no real downside to disclosing.”

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