GE scientist hopes 50th patent is US’s 10 millionth

Milestone patent expected to be issued next month; Niskayuna DNA researcher timed two most recent applications in hopes one gains distinction
Molecular biologist John Nelson works at the General Electric Global Research Center in Niskayuna.
Molecular biologist John Nelson works at the General Electric Global Research Center in Niskayuna.

NISKAYUNA — John Nelson figures his odds of winning U.S. patent No. 10,000,000 are no worse than 1 in 3,200.

The molecular biologist working at General Electric’s Global Research Center in Niskayuna has calculated that the milestone patent will be issued on June 19. And he got GE to time the submission for two GE patents in such a way that they should be in the June 19 batch.

“I never really thought about patents and when they issue,” Nelson said, though he already holds 48 patents and is a member of GE’s internal hall of fame for inventors.

A friend’s casual comment about the rapidly approaching milestone prompted him to look into the process. He discovered patents are always issued on a Tuesday, always in multiples of 100, and almost always in blocks of about 6,000. He said 6,200 or 6,400 is about the most ever issued at once.

“I’m thinking I have at least a 2-in-6,200 chance,” Nelson said.

A little more investigation showed him how long it takes the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to issue patents after payment of fees. He got GE’s patent office to pay those fees on May 15, so that the team’s patents would be in the queue for June 19.

“I’m fairly certain, if there weren’t a bazillion people who had the same idea as me, that it’s going to issue on that day,” Nelson said.

Nelson is a noted expert in DNA, the genetic code that makes living creatures unique, and the two patent applications he submitted for his 10-millionth-patent effort are directly connected to that field:

  • The first is for a type of paper that preserves and dries fluid samples so they can be stored dry at room temperature, rather than in a freezer. It’s an evolution of the paper GE developed to preserve droplet-sized blood samples from newborn babies, he added. The twist is that it inactivates viral and bacterial pathogens in the sample while keeping RNA intact for later study. “The one thing we had a very hard time with inactivating was tuberculosis … it’s a very hardy bacteria,” Nelson said. 
  • The second is for a device that automates the DNA sampling process. A specimen on a piece of paper is placed into a liquid solution within the device and exposed to an electrical field. The DNA moves into the liquid and the device extracts it.

Like all but one of Nelson’s previous patents, both of the new patents were a team effort, granted to multiple researchers. Nelson said the environment and culture at Global Research’s Niskayuna headquarters puts experts in multiple disciplines within close proximity of each other and encourages collaboration on projects that go beyond the expertise of any single team member.

Co-inventors of the paper for preserving pathogens were Scott Duthie, Erik Kvam and John Nelson. Co-inventors of the sampling device are Craig Galligan, Ralf Lenigk, John Nelson, Christopher Puleo, Patrick Spooner, Nichole Wood and Li Zhu.

Nelson is a Rochester-area native who holds master’s and doctoral degrees in molecular biology from the University of Rochester. His academic work focused on yeast DNA, which has the same enzymes as human DNA but carries none of the ethical constraints when it comes to gene manipulation.

He’s worked for GE for 21 years, the past 14 in Niskayuna, and is married to cellular biologist Deirdre Nelson. The two met at the University of Rochester, where she earned her doctorate. They live in Clifton Park and have two daughters in college.

One of Nelson’s hobbies doesn’t take him far from his work, literally, and the other is also pretty close, figuratively.

He’s a competitive rower with the Shenendehowa Crew, and three to four times a week he takes to the Mohawk River below the GE campus to practice.

He’s also a master homebrewer of 25 years … and what is beer at its heart but grain fermented by yeast?

“It did not hurt at all, when I was learning to brew, that I had a Ph.D. in yeast molecular biology,” Nelson said.

He showed members of his brewing club how to make a better yeast starter, and that became their secret weapon.

“Everyone started winning competitions,” he recalled.

The quest for patent No. 10,000,000 is more a matter of luck than a competition. Regardless, he should know the results in a few weeks.

He says he’d be almost as happy if one of his applications got patent No. 9,999,999 or No. 10,000,001. Failing that, perhaps he’ll have a shot at a future milestone patent: He’s only 55, and the rate of applications has increased sharply in recent decades. 

The first U.S. patent was issued in 1790, and only 9,957 had been issued as of 46 years later, when the numbering system was reset to zero in 1836. 

It then took 75 years to reach the 1 million mark, in 1911.

Barely three years will have elapsed between No. 9,000,000 in April 2015 and No. 10,000,000 in June 2018.


The following timeline shows key milestones in U.S. patent history:

  • No. 1: July 31, 1790, to Samuel Hopkins for a process of making potash, an ingredient used in fertilizer. 
  • No. 1: July 13, 1836, to John Ruggles for a traction wheel for steam locomotives. (The U.S. government had issued 9,957 patents before starting a new numbering system and reseting the count).
  • No. 1,000,000: Aug. 8, 1911, to Francis H. Holton, for a tubeless vehicle tire.
  • No. 2,000,000: April 30, 1935, to Joseph Ledwinka for a vehicle wheel to increase the safety and longevity of pneumatic tires.
  • No. 3,000,000: Sept. 12, 1961, to Kenneth Eldredge for an automated system that translated letters, numbers and symbols to data processing code.
  • No. 4,000,000: Dec. 28, 1976, to Robert Mendenhall for a process for recycling asphalt aggregate compositions.
  • No. 5,000,000: March 19, 1991, to the University of Florida. Lonnie O. Ingram and others invented an innovative way to produce fuel ethanol.
  • No. 6,000,000: Dec. 7, 1999, to 3Com Corp.’s Palm Computing. Jeffery Hawkins and others invented an extendible method and apparatus for synchronizing multiple files on two different computer systems.
  • No. 7,000,000: Feb. 14, 2006, to E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co. John O’Brien invented a process for producing polysaccharide fibers.
  • No. 8,000,000: Aug. 16, 2011, to Second Sight Medical Products, Inc. Robert Greenburg and others invented a visual prosthesis apparatus.
  • No. 9,000,000: April 7, 2015, to WiperFill Holdings LLC. Matthew Carroll invented a system of collecting rainwater to replenish a windshield wiper reservoir and windshield washer conditioner.

SOURCE: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

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