2024 Emerging Leaders

Jerry Ma

Developed new technology tools for Patent and Trademark Office personnel and the public, and led efforts to establish the agency’s approach toward the use of artificial intelligence for inventions seeking patents.

The first U.S. patent was granted in 1790. Today, hundreds of thousands of patent applications are approved every year, and patents are a vital part of the intellectual property system in the U.S. and worldwide. 

Jerry Ma, director of emerging technology at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, along with his team, are at the forefront of bringing this time-honored process to the cutting edge. 

Even before President Joe Biden’s 2023 executive order on responsible use of artificial intelligence in government, agencies were grappling with whether and how to embrace the challenges and opportunities of these technological advancements. 

But when Ma, 27, joined USPTO in 2020 from Silicon Valley, the agency had “maybe a few pilot projects” on AI already underway, said Jamie Holcombe, the agency’s chief information officer. “It was always in the ‘this is a possibility’ stage.” 

“Jerry’s challenge was to create a unified AI strategy and provide leadership to guide it,” said Deborah Stephens, deputy chief information officer at USPTO. “AI was our next-level area we needed to invest strongly in.” 

Both within the agency itself and in how USPTO views the role of AI in invention, Ma has played a central role. Internally, Ma led efforts to responsibly prototype and deploy AI, while setting up the guardrails guiding its use. He also worked with USPTO’s director and other leaders to craft the agency’s approach toward AI’s role in intellectual property. To that end, in February 2024, USPTO announced policy guidance requiring meaningful human contributions to inventions people seek patents for.  

“When you think of technology innovations, you think of Big Tech,” said Rasha Nahas, a client account lead at Accenture Federal Services, who has worked with Ma on several of his efforts. “But Jerry is bringing the best from industry to government.” 

New tools for patent examiners 

Approving a patent application is a complex process that can involve reviewing hundreds or even thousands of documents, in many languages and across multiple systems. The more than 8,000 patent examiners at USTPO take great pains to ensure that the inventions and discoveries that applicants claim as their own truly are unique. 

Ma led the agency in developing a portfolio of AI tools to improve this process. Two innovative tools in particular have helped tremendously to improve the quality of both patent approvals and rejections, according to Holcombe. 

One of these tools, an AI-powered search, goes beyond traditional keyword-based search methods to identify relevant information, and now processes thousands of searches per day. “The volume, diversity and complexity of today’s inventions requires us to empower examiners with capabilities that can meet the moment,” Ma said. 

“Before, you had 50 documents to review,” Holcombe said. “Now you have 500.” 

Another tool sifts through the USPTO archives to point examiners toward the documents most similar to the patent application they are considering, ranking the results to help them home in on the most relevant and most important information. 

For the public, the agency uses AI tools that help individuals new to intellectual property navigate the patent and trademark systems. 

Building consensus 

Colleagues note Ma’s unique ability to explain complex emerging technologies in ways nonexperts can understand, as well as his collaborative approach, pointing to those skills as a key reason for the agency’s successes in implementing these new tools. 

“Jerry introduces change in a way that builds consensus even when people might disagree on the best course of action,” Stephens said. “He has such an open mind and solves problems so creatively.” 

Ma is quick to credit his emerging technologies team, and to note that the advancements the agency is making are the product of input and perspective from across the agency. “The best way to advance emerging technology—whether policy or products—is to bring complementary bands of expertise together,” he said. 

The result is an agency that has not just implemented emerging technologies but embraced them.  

“Colleagues tell me we are leading the way in the AI space,” Stephens said. In fact, agencies across the federal government have sought out Ma’s unique blend of technical and policy expertise to develop AI test beds, recruit AI-savvy technologists, and address AI’s policy implications in areas from antitrust to consumer privacy. 

“The latest innovations aren’t just hammers in search of a nail, but the right hammers for the right nails—those that align with real-world needs and for which legacy approaches aren’t cutting it,” Ma said.