by Madhumita Datta, Ph.D., Esq., Lowenstein Sandler LLP
Almost exactly three years back, in a windy Fall afternoon much like today (minus the work-from-home component of course), my boss Marina Portnova asked me if I was interested to take up a pro bono project. She was approached by Jeanne Curtis, the inaugural Director of the Cardozo/Google Patent Diversity Project at the Cardozo Law School. I was fairly new to the firm at that point after a long stint at my previous firm, and pondered if I should do more client-billable work to establish myself as a profitable associate at my new workplace, or take up the pro bono work, which historically almost always proved to be more soul-satisfying. The debate was short-lived once I saw the profile of the potential pro bono client, Tambra Raye Stevenson. Working with more female inventors have been my life-long mission in an effort to leveling the playing field in my professional world involving patents, where only 12% of the inventors were female according to 2018 data. Well, Tambra not only fit that bill, but added more flavor to that, because her invention was not one of the high-tech devices and algorithms that I deal with day in and day out with my the silicon valley clients. She invented a talking doll to inspire people to eat better! I realized this will be a unique experience for me, and told my boss that I was in!
Little did I know at that time that during the course of working with Tambra I will embark on my own nutritional journey, and terms like “anti-inflammatory diet”, “dietetics” etc. would be part of my own vocabulary. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me roll back to October-November 2018 timeframe.
I had my first Skype meeting (Zoom was still not ubiquitous then) with Tambra in early November, 2018. She was based in Washington DC. Naturally my ice-breaker conversation involved mentioning the fact that my American journey began in the greater Washington DC metropolitan area when I joined University of Maryland as a graduate student, and then later started my career in patent law at a law firm in Washington DC. I had to explain to Tambra that we need to file a “design patent” to secure the intellectual property rights on the “looks” of the doll, rather than securing rights to the “utility” of the doll. The social “utility” of acting as a recognizable mascot to spread a positive message about better eating is not good enough from a patent law perspective. So over the next few meetings, Tambra and I collaborated to procure drawings that convey how the doll was going to look like. The doll already had a name—little WANDA, a very clever play on the acronym “Women (and girls) Advancing Nutrition, Dietetics and Agriculture.” Tambra did a great job explaining that Wanda was like “Dora the Explorer” who focuses on reminding children of African American descent to count on the treasure trove of ancestral knowledge about what nutrition is anthropologically optimal for them based on their genetic makeup. Tambra’s own daughter Ruby was the inspiration behind Wanda’s look—the twinkle in her eye, the way she dressed and the way she wore her hair.
Being an immigrant myself, who comes from India, a country that offers its own rich culture and deep ancestral knowledge about food, Tambra’s nutrition activism really resonated with me. And I was thrilled that finally my professional qualification as a patent attorney was giving me the chance to work with a very atypical client with a uniquely social vision. My then-secretary Gloria also joined in the enthusiasm. We finalized the drawings and the description and filed the patent application in March on 2019. As normal in any patent application, you submit the application and wait for the patent office to get back to you with either a rejection or an acceptance in one or more years.
With Tambra’s application, the first “rejection” from the patent office came in summer 2020. By that time the world had changed due to COVID. Everyone was dealing with stress and immunity-boosting nutrition became paramount. We had every motivation to respond to the “rejection.” We co-opted our trusted draftsman Darryl to tweak the drawings of the doll to overcome the patent Examiner’s rejections. But in a few months, the application got rejected again for the second time. This time I called up the patent Examiner, and she very patiently guided me through the additional modifications that I needed to introduce to the drawings.
While Tambra’s patent application was going through its back-and-forth with the patent office, my own story was changing significantly. In early May 2021, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that causes joint inflammation and excruciating pain if not managed properly. Before the formal diagnosis, I had been suffering with body aches and pain since late summer 2020. I just didn’t know what was causing it. Once diagnosed, on top of medication and physiotherapy, I was advised to take a closer look at my diet, because it is known that certain types of food cause inflammation. At that point, an angel of a friend, Vinita Madhani, connected me with Dr. Avinash Saoji, an India-based doctor of Naturopathy, who conducts nutritional boot-camps to reverse diabetes and other so-called “lifestyle based” diseases that to a large extent are caused by the type of food that we consume, including too much reliance on processed foods. With a lot of skepticism, I joined the program. Dr. Saoji told me at the beginning that though the program was designed for diabetes reversal, it has been proven to benefit arthritis patients as well. For ten weeks, I had to give up on a lot—no dairy, no tea/coffee, no white rice, no regular wheat-based bakery items, no non-vegetarian food, no sugar, no processed food, and no oil!! My first question was, then what is left to eat? But Dr. Saoji and his team at his non-profit organization Prayas (http://prayas-sevankur.weebly.com/about-us.html), gave us enough ideas and recipes to survive within the stringent constraints of the diet. And lo and behold, around the sixth week, my diabetes, for which I have been taking medication for the last five years, was miraculously reversed! And my arthritic pain was also perceptibly reduced!
In a spectacular coincidence, in another few weeks, Tambra’s patent application was allowed by the Examiner---our latest tweaks in the drawings did the trick! Our lives, mine and my client’s, got connected forever! I became a proud warrior who beat diabetes (and managed arthritis to a large extent) through better eating, and Tambra became a proud owner of her very first patent on a doll that talks about better eating! The patent officially issued as US Patent D93,387 right around her birthday! I could not have given her a better birthday gift!
This journey has been one of the major highlights of my sixteen-year-long career as a patent practitioner. Thank you Tambra for being an integral part of my story when my professional life tangled, in the most welcome way, with my personal life. Wish you all the success with WANDA’s mission, and I am glad to be a little part of your journey.