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Black Inventors and Entrepreneurs – Past, Present, and Future

Joint blog by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the International Trade Administration

Every February, we celebrate the achievements and history of African Americans. Black History Month reminds us that the principles of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility are critical to the success of the Department of Commerce’s mission. It is also an opportunity to spotlight some of the many inspiring stories and successes of Black inventors and Black-owned businesses. Bureaus across the Department of Commerce, including the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and the International Trade Administration (ITA), are committed to the domestic and international success of these innovators, entrepreneurs, and minority-owned businesses, which are so critical to American competitiveness and driving economic growth. 

Intellectual property (IP) protection is a key asset to help entrepreneurs raise capital, commercialize their inventions, and provide even more innovative solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems. Here are just a few examples of Black inventors and entrepreneurs whose innovation and creativity, and the IP behind it, can be an inspiration to us all and make the world a better place.  

  • With unwavering perseverance, Percy Julian fought against segregation and other challenges to become a leading innovator in synthetic chemistry. His numerous inventions range from the fire retardant Aerofoam to treatments for glaucoma and rheumatoid arthritis. He was granted over 130 patents during his lifetime and is a celebrated innovator who broke down barriers for future scientists from underrepresented groups. 

  • Brilliant You Denim is a North Carolina-based business founded by Terry Davis. She is the first Black female denim manufacturer in the U.S. The success of Davis’ business meant overcoming the monumental task of entering and competing in the multi-billion-dollar denim industry. She tackled this challenge by drawing on problem-solving skills developed during her career as an electrical engineer. One of her top priorities was to obtain a design patent for her jeans’ enhancement innovation. The company now holds 11 patents, with several more pending, and has trademarked its brand. She made it a point to set up the company’s manufacturing facilities in Greensboro, North Carolina, because she believed in the vision of rebuilding manufacturing in America. After growing the domestic business, Davis is now working with ITA’s U.S. Export Assistance Center in Raleigh to start exporting her products to Canada and Mexico.   

  • After 13 seasons of playing in the NFL, Shawn Springs founded Windpact, a company based in Leesburg, Virginia, focused on impact protection. He set out with a mission “to be the most advanced impact protection company in the world, to make everyday lives safer” after experiencing the effects of concussions firsthand. That knowledge, combined with the insights gained from a component of an infant car seat, led him to build a company that uses patented Crash Cloud™ technology to protect athletes, soldiers, and automobile passengers from traumatic brain injuries.  

  • Arlyne Simon is a patent-holding inventor and entrepreneur. As a young graduate student at the University of Michigan, she worked on a team that created a technology for a blood test that detects when cancer patients are rejecting a bone marrow transplant. After graduating and earning her Ph.D., she built a successful career as a biomedical engineer. Based on her desire to increase the number of women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, Simon was inspired to write a children’s book series featuring a young inventor and has also launched an online program to connect Black middle school girls to mentors in engineering.  

Commerce Resources to Help Your Business 

From pro bono assistance programs to free training seminars, the USPTO provides resources to inventors and entrepreneurs to help them navigate the process of obtaining a patent or trademark. This month, don’t miss the Black Innovation and Entrepreneurship series on February 17 and February 24. The events will feature a number of special guests including Lanny Smoot, Disney Research Fellow and Imagineer recently featured in the USPTO’s Journeys of Innovation story, “As if by magic.”  

If you run a minority-owned enterprise that has never exported or are looking to expand your exports to new markets, ITA is here to help you get started. The online questionnaire can help you assess your company's export readiness. The research center contains data, research, and analysis covering industries and markets around the world. Country commercial guides and a market diversification tool can help you identify potential new markets. ITA can help you tap into new markets and offers in-person and virtual events and services to help you in your export journey.  

Also, for U.S. minority-owned companies interested in expanding in Southwestern Europe (Italy, Portugal, and Spain), please consider applying for ITA's executive-level Minority-Business Focused Trade Mission, May 15-21. Over the course of the week, participants will connect with U.S. government leaders and commercial teams working in these markets, network with U.S. companies doing business in this region, and take part in customized one-on-one business appointments with pre-screened prospective buyers, agents, distributors, and joint venture partners.