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Esther Massung Kepplinger '71

Esther Massung Kepplinger '71After 32 years at the United States Patent and Trademark Office, with the last five years as the deputy commissioner for Patent Operations, Esther Massung Kepplinger now serves as the chief patent counselor for Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati in Washington, D.C., where she acts as the liaison to the Patent Office, counsels clients on patent strategy, and serves as an expert witness in patent litigation.

“As a practitioner, I am able to assist inventors in convincing the United State Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) that their inventions have merit and articulate reasons that distinguish them over prior art and thus deserve patent protection,” Ms. Kepplinger said. “In my job, I get to work closely with inventors and counsel them on ways to better claim their inventions to protect their intellectual property.”

Ms. Kepplinger said that working now in a law firm is invigorating in terms of seeing and learning new facets of intellectual property, such as “the business side of patents and how inventors struggle to grow a company and actually bring a product to market.” The firm specializes in representing start-up companies for whom patent protection is often essential to securing funding.

Graduating from IUP in 1971 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology, Ms. Kepplinger continued at IUP for two more years, working toward a master’s degree in Biochemistry, when, after submitting an application to the civil service, she received a job offer to be a patent examiner at the Patent Office.

“I did not apply directly to the Patent Office and did not have an interview,” she said. “I just received an offer in the mail for employment. Pretty amazing, since it turned out to be a great career!

“I was hired as a chemist, with the required 30 credit hours provided at IUP,” she said, “but I was actually hired to examine biotechnology. I do believe that IUP prepared me very well to succeed in the work, and have always felt competitive with others who went to better-known schools.”

Ms. Kepplinger served as a patent examiner and in supervisory positions before being selected as the deputy commissioner for Patent Operations; she was the first woman to rise to that level. As deputy commissioner, she oversaw all of the nation’s patent examination process, with 3,700 U.S. patent examiners reporting to her. She was responsible for the day-to-day operations, efforts to improve efficiency, and the achievement of the quality and pendency goals of the Patent Office. In this capacity, she managed about 4,500 people involved in the intake, examination, and publication of issued patents.

In 2009, Ms. Kepplinger was appointed by the Secretary of Commerce to serve on the Patent Public Advisory Committee, a statutorily created committee that advises the Patent Office on various issues. She continues to serve on that committee.

While at the Patent Office, as one of a small number of biotechnology examiners, Ms. Kepplinger believed she was offered many opportunities to participate in significant activities not afforded others in technologies that had many examiners. “For example,” she said, “even as a patent examiner, I participated in drafting rules for the deposit of micro-organisms and biological samples.”

For the World Intellectual Property Organization, Ms. Kepplinger led the international drafting of rules for submission of nucleic acid and amino acid sequences in patent applications and the Search and Examination Guidelines for International Patent Applications filed under the Patent Cooperation Treaty, guidelines followed by all patent examiners throughout the world.

As a patent agent, she can practice only before the Patent Office, but Ms. Kepplinger provides counseling and advice to clients on aspects related to the prosecution of a patent application.

When Ms. Kepplinger is with her family, she is surrounded by lawyers. Her husband, Gary, is the former general counsel at the Government Accountability Office and currently does consulting and expert work. Her daughters, Christina Johansen and Erin Kepplinger, are also attorneys.

Ms. Kepplinger attributes her successful career to her graduate work at IUP.

“I love the science and seeing the advances coming in the various areas,” she said. “In the USPTO, I was able to grant the patents on valuable technology and felt that I played an important role in the advancement of science by providing the critical protection inventors need in order to obtain and invest the money necessary to commercialize these inventions.

“I have had a rewarding and stimulating career, and feel gratitude to the professors at IUP who helped me develop and refine my knowledge and skills.”

Profile published on 6/11/13 

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