Meet an Inventor: Ana Arias

June 28, 2024

This interview with UC Berkeley Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences Ana Arias has been lightly edited and condensed from a conversation with IPIRA. Dr. Arias, whose research considers printed electronic materials and their application in flexible electronics and wearable medical devices, has co-founded several companies to commercialize her inventions including InkSpace Imaging and Tierra Metrics

Q: Tell me a little bit about what's motivated you as a scientist, as an inventor. How did you get to where you are now?  

In terms of patents, my first patent, when I learned about patents and inventions, was when I was working on my PhD. 

I started studying how materials are organized during solution processing. I figured out a way to make them follow a structure that was already in the substrate. And as I showed my advisor, my advisor said, we should file this as a patent. And I said that sounds very nice, but I don't know how. 

How do I do this? I've never done it. So that was the first experience. I was living in the UK. I had to go to London to talk to the lawyers because, you know, back then there was no Zoom. This was in 1999, something like that, 2000.  With that invention, what got me motivated was trying to come up with a solution that would improve the device performance and improve how light was being absorbed by a solar cell in this new material that I was focused on for my PhD dissertation. 

So that was the first time. And then once you understand the patenting process, I think you start to realize how much of your work is unique. Typically, you're working on solving a specific problem, either a problem from a device, or a problem in society. And if you know the process, then you start thinking in terms of protecting the invention, or protecting your thoughts.

So after I learned how the process worked with that first invention, I was working in a startup founded by my advisor. Intellectual property was something that we always talked about. We were trying to solve problems in unique ways that could be captured by the startup and could be filed as a patent, so that it turned into value for the company.  I worked there for two years, and then I moved to the US.

Culture of Creativity 

In the US, I worked at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), where for the first time I experienced a culture of creativity, inventions, and collaboration. It was very clear that the Xerox PARC culture was more American.

There, I filed many patents, because I continued working on a new area of solution processing and printed electronics. It was the very beginning of printed electronics. We would hold brainstorming meetings where one person would come up with a problem and everyone would contribute to ways of working on that problem. 

At Xerox PARC, there was a very specific structure in which you would file your invention. Then, there was an IP committee that would discuss your invention, and there were several lawyers that worked there that would write the patent with you. So there are many inventions there, and they all come from the same motivation of trying to solve a scientific problem. 

I think about unique ways of solving the problem and then think back on, is this so unique that I should protect it as an invention.  

Sharing Ideas, Finding Solutions

In my work since joining Berkeley, the invention that everybody loves is the MRI coils for pediatric patients.  And that came about because of collaboration.

I had not worked in magnetic resonance imaging before. But my colleague and dear friend, Miki Lustig, is a specialist in MRI. And I brought the printed technologies to Berkeley.  So I gave a talk at a department meeting. Miki listened to my talk, and then he asked me, can you print a coil? And we start talking about, okay, what are the requirements for a coil?

What are the problems in MRI? What are the problems for kids? And then, together, we filed this patent that is probably the strongest patent I have filed in my life. It covers flexible MRI coils, and it covers printing technologies, but also established technologies that could lead to flexible MRI coils. 

And it's beautiful. It's for a very special case, which is to make the MRI exam more comfortable for pediatric patients, flexible, and you see that there's dinosaurs. The whole thing has been designed to make kids more comfortable when they're sick.  

When you went from  academia into industry, how did that teach you about protecting intellectual property and patenting in a way that you carried with you?

You would tell somebody in academia, here's something that I've learned that you might not get if you're just working in academia. I think in academia, patents are not incentivized very often.  And the process of protecting your idea or your invention is not something that we learn by training in academia. 

So it is something that I brought. I do make my students file inventions. Berkeley doesn't have a budget to file all the patents that we submit as inventions, but I still make my students file invention disclosures. Some of them are very good and don’t get patented. But at least they become aware that you have to write this document that is disclosing your invention, you have to think about the possible claims, what is important, what's unique. You have to read what's unique about other people's work, which is also a learning experience. 

When I came from Xerox PARC to Berkeley, I was surprised that Berkeley didn't protect all the IP, because at Xerox they did. But now I understand budgets, priorities, and so on.  But I still file all my ideas. I submit it, and I see when there is industrial interest or there is the possibility of starting a business, which is what we did for the MRI case. Then I make sure that I am submitting the IP that will make that class of inventions strong. 

So I guess I learned how to do this at Berkeley, which is you have to have your business, or you have to be working with a company that is interested in that type of IP, so that they support the IP process and the patent filing and so on. And then you make sure that you are submitting new inventions that will make that patent family stronger. 

Q: What are some of the barriers that you've overcome?  

Um, ever? I mean, there were several barriers. I am, you know, female. Studying physics, in Brazil, it was a barrier.

My family didn't really see studying as something that a girl should be doing.  One story that I tell people is that my mom sent me to typing lessons, because she thought that  if I could get a good job in a doctor's office and as a secretary, and if I knew how to type, then maybe I could marry a doctor and have a good future.

Of course, it was her way of looking after me from her perspective. My dad got his undergraduate degree when I was 10 years old. And so I still remember my dad going to the university. My mom stopped at high school. Of course, I type a lot now, so it's great. And I'm a really fast typer.  But that was a barrier to convince my parents that I had to move from their home to study, and then to support myself financially. It's one of the very difficult things that I had to do, because they didn't support me financially.

So I had to work and study at the same time. And then, when I got my fellowship to do my PhD, that was when life became easier, because then at least I was supported to study.  

Let's see, other barriers. An equally difficult thing to do was to go back to work after I had kids. Back in industry, I had six weeks of maternity leave, and it was very hard to leave that tiny little baby at home and go back to work. There was no family around, and daycare was very expensive. So that was a barrier. I felt like society wanted me to stop working, but I'm stubborn and I didn't.

It's a mindset that okay, I am going to make this work. Yeah, I am going to study. Oh, I need to work. Okay, I'll work. Oh, I need to find a nanny.

Q: What did it mean to you to get your first patent? And now every time that you've gotten a patent, what does it mean to you? 

Oh, it's such a special feeling.

First of all, I learned to love the patent language, which is a special language. I like the way the claims are constructed, and all the dependencies and the possibilities of the claims. I enjoy the process. And when you get a patent, it's even more exciting than publishing a paper because the patents are checked for whether others have had the same idea.

This patent, for example, for the MRI, all claims were accepted, and to me that was a confirmation that what we were doing was so unique that nobody had thought about that before. 

Q: How do you measure success?

I really try to think about the impact that I'll have in other people's lives. Am I going to give people jobs? Am I going to improve how people live somehow? Or am I going to do things in a way that it's protecting the environment or polluting the environment less? My research is always focused on something that impacts people. I'm a people's person. So maybe that is success. It makes me happy when I see that I am having an impact on the things that I care about.