What continues to amaze me about people who apply for patents is not that they're coming up with these completely novel inventions that just break down the door and bust the mold. No, it's that there are so many really driven people who are constantly trying to make things we already use, better. They see a photocopier, a toothbrush, a golf club, whatever, and they just want to improve it.

I wonder if the guy who looked at Thomas Edison's patent for the light bulb knew he was looking at something that would change the way people live, forever. Did anyone realize how that simple patent application from the Wright brothers would change the world? Probably not. There are so many papers coming across your desk, so many details to check, that it's hard to step back and see the totality of what is happening.

It never fails -- everyone who finds out where I work says, "Hey, I got an idea." I listen, point them in the right direction. But I try not to get their hopes up, even if it's a great idea. There are plenty of great ideas out there, and a lot of them have already been thought of by someone else. Whenever I speak to students working on their senior design projects, I tell them to do a patent search first. More times than not, what you want to do has already been done. One of my sons is constantly sketching out new inventions. Just the other day, he came up with a pitching machine. I tell him my job is to look at people's new inventions and tell them if they're new or not. But I'm a dad first, so I didn't tell him about all the other pitching machines out there.

-- Interview by Amanda Temple