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Rochester is patently an inventive city

In 2019, the U.S. Patent and Trademark office issued 726 patents with at least one Rochester inventor listed. While that's down from 767 patents in 2018, the Med City still ranks high, with 11.57 patents per 10,000 people.

Drawing from Trombone Buddy patent. Patent No. 10,347,230 was issued to Randy Stroetz on July 9, 2019.

In 2019, the U.S. Patent and Trademark office issued 726 patents with at least one Rochester inventor listed. While that's down from 767 patents in 2018, the Med City still ranks high, with 11.57 patents per 10,000 people.

Depending on how it is calculated, Rochester is usually in the top tier of lists of inventive cities, next to such brainy communities as the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, California metro; Burlington, Vermont; and Poughkeepsie, New York.

Med City inventors have been issued more than 12,200 patents in the past 44 years. IBM accounted for 9,424 of those patents. About 1,000 were assigned to Mayo Clinic.

While IBM and Mayo Clinic are the big leaders in Rochester patents, there are plenty of other local inventors with ideas ranging from devices for teaching people how to play the trombone to electric ice rink re-surfacers to toddler place mats.

Faster learning


Often, the path to a patent starts in someone's living room, where an inventive mind considers a problem and how to solve it.

For Randy Stroetz, the problem was that it's not easy to learn to play the trombone.

As a lifelong player whose father taught the instrument and performed professionally, Stroetz well knows the difficulties of learning how to play the horn with a slide.

The traditional way to teach how to move the slide to the seven positions is for young players to watch the slide. However, watching the slide is considered a bad habit among players and it's a slow learning process.

"It is an old, old, old problem," he said in his Rochester living room. "I don't think teachers have really thought that process through real carefully, because they don't know any other way to teach that."

The end result is that it takes new trombone players a lot longer to learn the basics of how to play a simple song compared to their peers who are picking up instruments with specific buttons for the notes, like saxophones or trumpets.

"New trombone players are going to suck for longer. Learning the slide positions is a foundational thing... It really slows them down," said Stroetz. "That why trombone has such a high attrition rate."

'I like to tinker'


After he retired from Mayo Clinic, Stroetz thought about the problem a lot. He did a variety of things at Mayo, including working as a registered nurse and respiratory therapist. At the end of his time at Mayo Clinic, he worked in a research lab helping make whatever was needed.

A pulmonologist recruited him to work in the lab, because he saw that "I have a knack for coming up with ways to solve problems with technology," said Stroetz. "I like to tinker."

Given that skill and an inventive mind, in his retirement he focused on finding a solution to the old trombone education problem.

After thousands of hours of work and hundreds of failed prototypes, Stroetz created the TromboneBuddy. It's a small, adjustable device made of carbon fiber, 3D-printed plastic, rubber and magnets.

On July 9, 2019, he was issued U.S. Patent No. 10,347,230 for his invention. While Stroetz has his name on patents for creations made during his time at Mayo Clinic, this is his first independent invention.

The device clamps securely to the trombone slide. The magnets cause a tactile 'notch' feeling at the slide positions to provide a guide for new players. It also prevents young players from accidentally pushing the slide completely off and damaging the horn, as many newbies do.

It makes it easier for a new player to ingrain those slide positions into their brain, like being able to find a light switch in the dark.

He has been selling the TromboneBuddy at music conferences, through local retailers like Music Mart and online through his website,  trombonebuddy.com . About 50 to 100 of his educational aids are in use around the country. He hopes that number will grow.


While the success of the business would make him happy, the big goal is to help others find joy in playing the horn that he loves so much.

"If I can make it easier for new players ... I feel good about that," he said.

Patents can boost a city's economic profile

Having a lot of inventors can be great for a city.

Having a lot of patents is even better.

Patents translate into valuable intellectual property that can be licensed to companies, spur partnerships or, in some cases, turn into local businesses. While patents aren't a direct pipeline for local jobs or even revenue, they certainly can open the door to such economic development.

"It's a great thing for Rochester, because these (patented ideas) will be in Rochester," said Mayo Clinic Ventures Chairman Andy Danielsen. "And some of them will turn into companies that have jobs, pay taxes and build up our economic base here in Rochester."

While the number of local start-ups based on Rochester intellectual property is growing, it is still rare for an idea to turn into profitable business.

"It's darn near magic when it happens. Thank goodness it does happen. That's how we get advancements," said Danielsen.

Rochester has tallied more than 700 patents each year since 2014. 

The official database of U.S. patents online only goes back to 1976. In 1976, Rochester inventors were issued 25 patents. 

Patents and patients

The early philosophy of Mayo Clinic was that research should further the cause of medicine, but it should not directly enrich the clinic.

Over the years that belief evolved, until Mayo Clinic changed its policies in 2013 under then-CEO Dr. John Noseworthy to encourage doctors and researchers to look for ways to translate ideas into products that can help patients.

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That took the number of patents assigned to Mayo Clinic from 24 in 2012 to 101 in 2019.

"The patents increase is the direct result of leadership actively encouraging and intentionally creating a culture of innovation," said Mayo's Danielson. "That is based on our mission. We're here to treat patients, but we're also here to invent the medicine of tomorrow."

Beside speeding the process of bringing Mayo Clinic research directly to patients, this new culture is also generating substantial amounts of revenue. Mayo Clinic Ventures' efforts resulted in $92 million in revenue in 2019, the fifth record-setting total in the last six years.

"It's becoming a fairly substantial revenue generator for us. Other than the small amount that goes back to the inventors, the vast majority of it goes right back into more research and more education at Mayo Clinic," Danielsen said. "It's a virtuous wheel, when we get it turning right. When done right, it's a really nice virtuous cycle."

'The gas pedal is to the floor'

To keep that wheel "virtuous," Mayo Clinic has created a "very robust" collection of conflicts-of-interest rules. Danielson emphasized that treating patients is the primary goal, and that the trust of patients is needed to do that well.

Mayo Clinic researchers, like Dr. Richard Ehman, who created the Resoundant imaging device, and Dr. Kah-Whye Peng, who is a co-developer of the science behind the Vyriad vaccine firm, do get a percentage of the royalties that Mayo Clinic earns from their work. There are many different licensing and partnership agreements, but generally Mayo Clinic owns equity and collects revenue from companies using Mayo research.

However, revenue is not generated if a Mayo Clinic doctor prescribes something that would normally produce a royalty payment.

The popular Cologuard colon cancer screening is based on Mayo Clinic research. When a Sanford Health doctor prescribes Cologuard, it generates a royalty payment to Mayo. When a Mayo Clinic doctor prescribes it, the clinic does not get a royalty payment.

"We don't want to incentivize prescribing things that benefit Mayo," he said.

Mayo CEO Dr. Dr. Gianrico Farrugia is following Noseworthy's lead by encouraging more innovation and entrepreneurship. Mayo Clinic Ventures is a very busy place these days.

"We have a minimum of three ideas per day walking in the door," said Danielson. "The gas pedal is to the floor."

Defense Field

There is no single route to being issued a patent. Some people are the traditional garage workshop tinkerers, but others follow a different route.

One local patent holder, attorney Arthur Handelman, came up with a novel use for a ground heating system developed by a Chicago firm that he works with as a member of its board of directors.

PyroPhase makes a system made up of electrified metal pipes that can be used to heat the ground around oil drilling sites to "lower the viscosity of heavy oil" and help with the extraction of "unconventional" oil.

"One day when I heard on the news of the challenge governments were having with stopping terrorists who were tunneling under protected borders, I realized a reconfiguration of PyroPhase’s technology could easily create an impenetrable thermal barrier," remembered Handelman. "No terror group or drug smugglers have the ability to tunnel through ground with a temperature in excess of 100 degrees Celsius. With a barrier in place, there is no need to worry about detecting tunneling activity, as the bad guys simply would not be able to tunnel through the extreme temperature."

That idea led to him being listed as the lead developer of an "electric defense field." Patent No. 10,212,795 was issued on Feb. 19, 2019. The patent describes the field as "rows of vertical electrodes installed underground or above ground." In addition to heating the ground to make "human occupation of tunnels untenable," the system can also create a "shock from an electric pulse."

Handelman sees situations like terrorists attacking the Israel border as place where this could be used, as well as the U.S. southern border. He said if someone is tunneling into a secured location, they are almost certainly up to no good.

"While originally conceived for border protection, it would be sensible to deploy around any high-value potential target, from government buildings to power plants to data centers. ... One of the advantages of the system is that it is completely benign unless activated. Further, the system can easily be removed so it would not leave a harmful legacy behind once its protections are no longer needed," he stated. "We have not attempted to formally market the system yet, but through informal contacts have received several indications of serious interest and are currently engaged in discussions with a NATO member country for possible deployment."

Big Blue

The Rochester campus of IBM has long been a city leader in patents, as the company has led the nation. IBM was issued 9,262 patents nationwide in 2019, more than any other U.S. company had ever received in a year.

Out of the 726 Rochester patents in 2019, 527 were issued to IBM. Despite a reduction in the number of local employees, IBM's Rochester patent number has held steadily at more than 500 each year since 2011.

The IBM campus, which opened in 1956, collected its first Rochester patent in 1960. It was for a low-tech "Method for Assembly of Printing Apparatus."

Rochester IBMers went on to develop and patent innovative technology like the legendary AS/400 server. Many of the world's fastest computers -- Blue Gene/L, Roadrunner, Blue Gene/Q Mira, Blue Gene/Q Sequoia and Summit - were conceived here.

The famous Watson computer, which competed on the "Jeopardy" game show in 2011, also owed part of its creation to Rochester engineers.

Many other things, like the Nintendo Wii's unique remote or "Wiimote," also got their start here.

IBM has many "Master Inventors" based in Rochester. One of them is Brian Bakke, an I/O firmware developer, who has 81 U.S. and international patents.

When asked what patent is his favorite, Bakke wrote, "That's a tough question. There are ones that had higher business value, but I'm probably partial to the first patent issued. At that time I was 13 years into my career and had published numerous inventions that were not filed as patent applications. The first one broke the ice and the rest just seemed to follow."

Bakke said many patents and inventions coming out of IBM's Rochester campus are the product of a group effort.

"Most of the patents result from team collaboration. I have been fortunate enough in my career to be on multiple different innovative teams. The broadest patents result from the team probing the edges of the problem space and coming up with creative solutions," he wrote.

The development of cortisone proved the value of patents

Mayo Clinic hasn't always generated revenue directly from medical research, and many people cite the Nobel Prize-winning cortisone discovery as a prime example.

The story is often told that Mayo Clinic didn't patent the research of chemist Edward Kendall and Dr. Philip Hench, who won the Nobel Prize in 1950 with Swiss researcher Dr. Tadeus Reichstein for their work creating "Compound E." Compound E was later called cortisone and used to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

The truth is much more complicated, though the end result is the same.

Kendall did have patents on the research, along with Merck Co. and three other companies. 

Following a path he used in 1921 when he developed a process to produce the thyroid substance thyroxine, Kendall gave his patents to Mayo Clinic. Dr. William Mayo, in turn, "unconditionally" presented the patent to the American Medical Association.

Kendall was quoted as stating, "No physician engaged in the practice of medicine should profit from the exploitation of any drug, vaccine or appliance used in the practice of medicine. This is the time honored statement; it has been the policy of Mayo Clinic from the beginning."

Mayo Clinic, along with the other patent holders, turned over the cortisone patents to a nonprofit organization, Research Corp. of New York, which allowed all of the organizations to mutually use all of the patents.

In his book, "The Quest for Cortisone," Thom Rooke describes the results.

"Dr. Kendall never seemed to regret any of his decisions or actions, and in this case, one suspects, neither did the drug companies that benefited by his noble stand," Rooke writes. "After all, they went on to make billions from his discovery."

Not profiting from research continued to be Mayo Clinic's standard until the policies were changed in 2013.

Another example of Mayo Clinic's magnanimous approach was during World War II, when clinic researchers helped develop the "G-suit" for military pilots.

Mayo Clinic reportedly spent $2 million to develop the flight suit and then "sold" it to the U.S. government for $1.

In 2017, then-Mayo Clinic CEO Dr. John Noseworthy quipped during the annual Rochester Area Chamber Commerce celebration that, "We’re never doing that again," causing his audience to explode with laughter.

Mayo Clinic now receives millions annually from contracts with the federal government, including the Department of Defense.

Notable Rochester patents

Here are a few notable patents issued to Rochester inventors at IBM and Mayo Clinic:

Thyroid Substance and Process of Making it -- Patent No. 1,392,768 issued to inventor Edward C. Kendall of Rochester on Oct. 4, 1921.

Kendall, who was a co-winner of the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1950 for the development of cortisone, turned the patent over to Mayo Clinic. Dr. William Mayo, in turn, presented the patent "unconditionally" to the American Medical Association.

Method for Assembly of Printing Apparatus -- Patent No. 2,935,018 issued to International Business Machines on May 3, 1960. Inventor John H. Lego, Rochester.

This was the first of what would be thousands of patents that continue to flow from inventors on IBM's Rochester campus.

Task handling apparatus for a computer system -- Patent No. 4,177,513 issued to International Business Machines on Dec. 4, 1979. Inventors Roy L. Hoffman, Pine Island; William G. Kempke, Rochester; John W.  McCullough, Rochester; Richard T. Turner, Rochester; Frank G. Soltis of Rochester.

Soltis, who was called the father of the wildly popular AS/400 computer system created in Rochester, said this patent was the most important one involving the AS/400. This technology provides the tasking structure used in IBM's S/38, AS/400 and iSeries systems.

Correction of MR images for motion artifacts using navigator echoes and autocorrection -- Patent No. 6,184,682 issued to Mayo Foundation for Medical and Research on Feb. 6, 2001. Inventors Richard L. Ehman of Rochester; Joel P. Felmlee of Rochester; Armando Manduca of Rochester; Kiaran P. McGee of Rochester.

This technology is now found in most MRI scanners.

Prosthetic elbow replacement -- Patent No. 7,850,737 issued to Mayo Foundation for Medical and Research on Dec. 14, 2010. Inventor Bernard F. Morrey of Rochester.

This is only one of the elbow replacement patents by Morrey, whose work is used by Zimmer Biomet in Coonrad/Morrey Total Elbow products among others.

Multi-petascale highly effi cient parallel supercomputer -- Patent No. 9,081,501 issued to International Business Machines on Sept. 8, 2011. Of the 75 listed inventors, 20 are from Rochester -- Mchael A. Blocksome, Kristan D. Davis, Matthew Ellavsky, Kahn C. Evans, Thomas M. Gooding, Todd A. Inglett, Brant L. Knudson, James A. Marcella, Mark G. Megerian, Douglas R. Miller, Samuel J. Miller, Adam J. Muff, Michel B. Mundy, Jeffrey J. Parker, Ruth J. Poole, Joseph D. Ratterman, Brian Smith, William M. Stickdell, James L. Oosten, Charles D. Wait and Alfred T. Watson.

This patent represents a piece of Rochester's reputation of one of the top supercomputing sites. Blue Gene/L, Roadrunner, Blue Gene/Q Mira, Blue Gene/Q Sequoia and Summit has been listed among the fastest machines on the planet. 

Roadrunner broke an elusive computing speed barrier by clocking a petaflop, or one quadrillion calculations per second, in 2008. It was considered obsolete by 2013.

Detecting neoplasm (DNA stool test for detection of colorectal cancer) -- Patent No. 9,121,070 issued to Mayo Foundation for Medical and Research on Sept. 1, 2015. Inventors David A. Ahlquist, Rochester; David I. Smith, Rochester; William R. Taylor, Lake City; Patrick S. Quint, Kasson; Harold R. Bergen III, Spring Valley; Jonathan J. Harrington, Madison, Wis.; Hongzhi Zou, Middleton, Wis.

This patent is now licensed to Exact Sciences Corp., which makes the popular cancer test Cologuard. Exact moved to Madison, Wis., in 2009.

Patents issued with at least one Rochester, Minn. inventor.

2019 - 726

2018 - 767

2017 - 758

2016 - 725

2015 - 749

2014 - 720

2013 - 687

2012 - 652

2011 - 599

2010 - 616

1990 - 61

1976 - 25

Source: The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office online database.

Related Topics: MAYO CLINICIBM
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