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3 Ways Hispanic Inventors Changed Our Lives

The patents they earned in middle age have reshaped parenting, commuting and music

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With such a rich diversity of perspectives and backgrounds, it’s no surprise that Latinos power $2.75 trillion of total economic output in the United States and “continue to start businesses at a faster rate than all [other groups] — including 44 percent growth in the number of businesses in the last 10 years compared to just 4 percent for non-Latinos,” according to a report from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Latino Business Action Network.

One pathway for Latinos who aspire to become entrepreneurs to secure long-term financial success is through the federal patent system. Acquired through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), a  patent prohibits others from making, using, selling, offering for sale or importing an invention. A patent also is legally recognized as property, which means it can be an asset that increases the business’s overall valuation.

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This Hispanic Heritage Month we celebrate three Latino patent holders who invented everyday products that many of us use.

Improving the portable breast pump

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Elena Medo
Amanda Lopez/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Elena Medo’s invention started like so many others, with a personal need. After giving birth to her third child in 1982, Medo had to lug her 30-pound breast pump through multiple stops on her daily commute to the Vancouver Stock Exchange. After all that effort, the device barely worked. Medo started developing a lighter, more portable design while she continued working full time and raising her family. In 1999 she successfully patented a manual breast pump system that uses a wall vacuum to make it more effective.  

The device would ultimately become the launchpad for several start-ups she founded in the lactation industry. At its peak, one of her companies was earning roughly $4 million per year, The Washington Post reports. In recent years, however, her companies have faced various legal struggles.

Medo was 46 at the time of her first patent and would go on to receive an additional eight patents for her designs.

Making mass transit safer

The next time you step off a train after arriving at your destination you may want to thank serial inventor Victor Ochoa. Born in Mexico in 1850, Ochoa earned a patent for the electric brake in 1907, more specifically for a process that uses magnetic attraction to slow the train. This invention led to safer mass transit systems, with the ability to transport more commuters.

A prolific inventor, Ochoa also is credited with the folding wing airplane (also known as the Ochoaplane), the adjustable wrench, the wind-powered generator and more. He was also a journalist and close friends with former President Theodore Roosevelt.  

Ochoa was 57 at the time of his electric brake invention.   

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Giving guitars a stronger sound

While the guitar dates back more than 4,000 years, musicians and inventors continue to find ways to make it sound sweeter. For example, Puerto Rican-born William Cumpiano has dedicated his life to perfecting the instrument’s construction to improve its sound. In 1994, Cumpiano patented the compression-molded composite soundboard for acoustic guitars, which helps improve sound and durability

“A guitar is a very challenging piece of woodworking,” Cumpiano told Woodworker’s Journal in 2005.  “Even though it is made of very thin sheets of wood, it is under constant stress. To sound good and stay in one piece, it must be both light and strong. Reconciling those two demands is the form of brinkmanship at which guitar makers excel. They must understand both the architectural and sonic requirements of the well-balanced piece of machinery they build.”

Cumpiano continues to specialize in traditional Puerto Rican music today, as a cofounder of the Cuatro Project and as guest lecturer and contributor to various universities, training programs and publications. The Cuatro Project has been Grammy and Latin-Grammy nominated and its albums are part of the Smithsonian Folkway Recordings catalogue.

William was 49 at the time of his composite soundboard invention.

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Closing the patent disparity gap

Historically, entrepreneurs have relied on patents to protect their inventions from market competitors. Despite the earning potential of a patented product, the disparity gap among patent holders remains high. VentureWell reports that Hispanic inventors file for patents at half the rate of Black inventors, a trend the USPTO is determined to address.

Kathi Vidal, undersecretary of commerce for intellectual property and director of the USPTO, says that “to expand, protect and commercialize U.S. innovation, we need to hear from creators, inventors, entrepreneurs and all those with big dreams from every walk of life, in every state and region, especially those who have historically lacked access to our intellectual-property economy. We know that innovators and entrepreneurs are everywhere.

“We must do better at meeting people, including those of Hispanic heritage and those who are on their second act, where they are to help them on their journeys — to patent their ideas, trademark their brands, seek investments to grow their enterprises and engage in emerging new sectors of the economy that need their unique insights and perspectives,” Vidal says.

In an effort to close the gap, the USPTO has launched a quarterly series that discusses, in Spanish, steps to secure intellectual property known as Introducción a la Propiedad Intelectual. Also available is the annual Hispanic Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program, an initiative that “offers opportunities for independent inventors, entrepreneurs, small business owners and intellectual property professionals to learn about resources available to the Hispanic innovation community.”

Are you considering small business ownership? Visit the Supporting Hispanic and Latino-Owned Businesses on the AARP Small Business Resource Center for those 50 and older to access bilingual resources, funding resources and more.

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