#CareerHighlights - Neil Thompson, Patent Agent & Writer

Neil Thompson has worn many different hats. In the past he’s worked as a research associate at a start-up company and as a product development engineer. Now Thompson works as a patent agent and writer, helping those with innovative ideas bring their ideas to fruition while regularly posting on his website. With his experience at start-up companies and as a product development engineer, Thompson also occasionally contributes to business journals like the San Diego Business Journal (SDBJ) on the topic of start-up companies. As a student, Thompson excelled in the maths and sciences, eventually deciding to major in Materials Engineering at the University of Toronto. He later went on to gain Masters in Bioengineering and Biomedical Engineering from Clemson University and Columbia University respectively. With his wealth of experience and knowledge, Thompson offers invaluable advice to those unsure about their future while representing an inspiring addition to Gladeo’s Career Highlights.

Q: What does a patent agent do?

A: A patent agent is someone who helps people with their invention ideas. For instance, if you have an invention idea and it’s novel and it’s not obvious from other inventions that have already been done then you can enlist a patent agent to help you draft the patent application and file it with the U.S. Patent Office. Typically, your patent agent is your go-between between you and the patent office. They’re the person who will be communicating with the patent office and hopefully get your application to turn into a patent.

Q: How have your past occupations helped you excel in your current jobs as a patent agent and author?

A: I probably wouldn’t even be a patent agent if I wasn’t a product development engineer beforehand. It was at one of my jobs where I was working as a product development engineer in the medical device industry. My boss had wanted all the engineers to become patent agents. I think the reason for that was he didn’t want to have to employ outside patent attorneys or patent agents to file the inventions within the company anymore, he wanted people within the company to do it for him, I’m guessing to save money. I’m the only person who ended up becoming a patent agent, none of the other engineers even bothered. To be a patent agent you have to have a STEM background. You have to have a degree in science or engineering to even become a patent agent. So being a product development engineer was instrumental to me becoming a patent engineer. It likely wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

Q: Could you elaborate on what you love most about our career, and what is the coolest patent you’ve worked on?

A: What I like most about it is the ability to see different people’s inventions. I work on all kinds of different types of inventions, it’s never really the same thing twice. So, the variety of being a patent agent is something I really enjoy. The coolest patent I’ve ever worked on would be, I’m not sure if anyone would consider this cool but I would, a fabric for the gi. The person who developed this particular invention made it so that the gi was difficult to latch on to so that when you’re grappling it’s actually hard to get the person down because the material that the gi is made out of makes it hard to latch onto.

Q: Before you started your professional career, what were the influences that indicated that you might thrive as an engineer or later as a patent agent or as a writer?

A: Well, to be very honest, the idea of becoming an engineer didn’t happen until I was further along in school, probably not till the end of high school. I’ve always been pretty good at math and science but I didn’t know what that could translate into as far as a career goes. It was really my father who suggested, probably around my senior year of high school, it’s time to apply to college, that maybe engineering is something you want to get into considering you’re strong in math and science. He thought that with an engineering degree you could do a lot of things. You could work in engineering, sure, but there are engineers who go to medical school, there are engineers who go to law school, there are engineers who stay engineers obviously. It’s very versatile in that regard. People who have engineering degrees can go pretty much anywhere they want. It was appealing to me, and that’s basically why I followed that field and took my father’s suggestions just so I could be versatile and flexible later on.

Q: What advice do you have for students?

A: I think the number one thing if you’re unsure of what you want to do is to, if at all possible, try to shadow different types of people with various professions to see if that’s something you would even be interested in doing. It’s easier when you have LinkedIn. With LinkedIn, you can find any old-fashioned profession. There are basically thousands of people on LinkedIn with different jobs, so you can basically reach out to them, say that you’re a student and you’re considering going into their field and if they would be willing to talk to you. Typically, a lot of people are. I find that people like to talk about themselves, so if you’re somebody that is interested in what they do they’re likely to sit down and talk with you or Skype. With technology, the sky’s the limit really. You don’t have to even be in front of a person face to face. Basically, you talk with various people, figure out what their jobs are and if that sounds interesting to you. Then do these kinds of research until whatever you want to continue doing in college. Or whatever that particular path requires.

Q: Could you explain how you first started your career?

A: I knew that I didn’t want to go get a job right away. I wasn’t too keen on going out there and going on interviews and getting my resume together and all of that, so I went to graduate school for a couple years and then when I finished a Master’s degree I still wasn’t too keen on going out and finding a job, so I actually enrolled in a PhD program. After the first year of that PhD program I realized I was in the wrong place. PhDs can take years to get and there’s no guarantee that you’ll actually use that PhD in your job. A PhD is very unlike an MD or a JD, because when you get an MD you’re a doctor you typically work as a doctor, if you’re a JD you’re a lawyer and you can work as a lawyer. When you get a PhD, especially in a STEM field, there’s not really a job that’s waiting for you with a PhD. There are academic jobs you could do, becoming a professor, but those jobs are difficult to come by and difficult to get. And there are other jobs, non-academic jobs in the industry that require a PhD, but a lot of them don’t. So, the idea of continuing on in a PhD program just seemed unappealing to me so after a year in that PhD program I dropped out and then I had to figure out what I was going to do next. So, for the next, I think seven months, I lived in my father’s condo, and now I had no choice but to go look for another job, or look for a job and get a resume together and go on interviews. I basically couldn’t stall anymore, it’s probably time to enter the real world and get a real job. It took me about seven months to get my first job and it was really by applying to various jobs online. And then I got a job at this company, a small start-up company in the Boston area and I was a research associate. I worked there for, I think about two years or so, a little longer than two years. That’s basically my first job, and I got it just by applying.

Q: You have a very large online presence with a website, blog, YouTube channel, podcast and social media accounts- do you have any advice for building and maintaining an audience?

A: For me, it comes down to being consistent. I have a blog and I make sure I write a post on my blog every Sunday. I mark it on my calendar. Sunday can’t end until I’ve written a blogpost on my website. I just try to be disciplined and consistent that way. All the other things I have, the social media channels, the YouTube channel for instance, I recently became more disciplined with that. So, I decided I’m going to do a vlog every Sunday as well. Usually I do the vlog first and do the blogpost afterwards. I’ve been keeping that schedule for the past month or so, I believe. So basically, it comes to buckling down and getting it done and getting it on a schedule so that it’s actually concrete. You actually see it on a page or on a screen or however you keep your schedule. You see that this that needs to be done and you just make sure that you do it.

Q: What motivates you to work hard in your career and life?

A: Well, I kind of like having a roof over my head and roof to eat so that’s a big motivator for me- not being homeless. More than that, it’s basically being able to do the work that I want to do. So, for a number of years I worked for companies. I know I said earlier that my first job was working for a start-up in the Boston area as a research associate, and after that I went onto other jobs as a product development engineer, but they were always jobs working for others.  When you work for others you are beholden to what they want you to do, and eventually I grew tired of working on things others wanted me to do, and I really wanted to work on things that I wanted to do. So maybe a year ago I decided that I was going to go into business for myself as a patent agent, taking the types of cases that I wanted to take. The inventions that I found interesting I’d work on. When it comes to writing, blog posts are one avenue. I write sometimes for the San Diego Business Journal on various topics that are applicable to start-up companies since I worked for a couple start-up companies. Basically, carving my own language and my own niche. So, what motivates me is working on the types of projects that I want to work on and being able to be sustainable doing so.

Q: Any last words of advice?

A: I think I already mentioned this, but I think it bears repeating especially for those who aren’t really sure what they want to do. I mean I mentioned I wasn’t even sure about engineering until I was close to ending high school. So, I was in the same boat as a lot of the people affiliated with Gladeo. And as I said in this day and age it’s so much easier to seek out people who are doing different types of jobs and basically picking their brains about these types of jobs to see if that’s something you’d be interested in doing. It doesn’t cost all that much to do, all you need now is typically nowadays is just a laptop and an internet connection and there you go. And you’re off and running. I wouldn’t be afraid of doing that. As I said before, people are typically keen on talking about their jobs especially if they like their jobs. I wouldn’t want to spend too much time talking to people who don’t like their jobs. You want to talk to people who enjoy what they do, and it will help you clarify what you want to do later on in life.

By Daniel Nguyen