A Patent Professional

Physicist David Pepper spent 30 years working at HRL Laboratories and has accumulated nearly 70 U.S. patents.

Last Tuesday, local David M. Pepper hit a milestone, or rather, his 68th one.

The U.S. Patent Office published his 68th patent that day, an achievement ranking him among the top half-of-a-percent of U.S. inventors.

A physicist and former adjunct Pepperdine professor, the Caltech graduate possesses expertise in laser technology and optics that has fueled most of his inventions. He worked as a senior scientist at HRL Laboratories in Malibu for more than 30 years, which awarded him “HRL Outstanding/Distinguished Inventor of the Year” 13 times, including 12 consecutive wins.

Exploring the unexpected is a hallmark of inventors. However, Pepper notes, “I wasn’t hired to be an inventor. I was hired to be a laser physicist, a research scientist.”

He cites “the challenge” as his driving motivation, especially “when someone says there’s no way this can work.” Coming up with ideas for inventions “is like a random firing of my neurons,” said Pepper, who obtained his first patent in 1980.

It’s also part of the reason he so enjoyed working at HRL, where experts pursued research across many fields.

“There are a lot of parallels,” Pepper said.

He tended to work with lasers but working with others in different fields of expertise made him consider whether his study of light waves could apply to other areas with wave mechanics.

“That’s the beauty of working with a diversified group of people,” he said.

Pepper’s 68th invention is titled “molecular gas-filled hollow core photonic crystal fiber laser at infra-red wavelengths.” In it, he and co-inventors Hans Bruesselbach and Bryan Fong, both of California, disclose a new design for optical cables. Conventional cables are solid-glass fibers surrounded by materials to reflect light in a specific way, layered around the glass core like a bull’s-eye target.

This patent describes a new hollow-cored cable surrounded by a thin layer of silica to reflect the light. Silica (glass) is a typically “loss-y” or light-absorbing material, but Pepper’s findings use novel structures to “pre-engineer material to direct light like you wish,” almost like bouncing light through a garden hose. According to Pepper, the new design could enable the next generation of inexpensive and robust glass fibers, possibly allowing for faster transmissions as well.

“The main thing to take away from this patent is that just because a material is loss-y doesn’t mean you can’t design these photonic crystal devices using it, and that’s always been kind of counter-intuitive.”

Pepper’s 67 other patents carry complex titles such as “phase control of a fiber optic bundle,” “optical frequency modulated transmitter” and “surface potential control in plasma processing of materials.”

Inventions are one thing, Pepper has learned, but getting products to take off is another.

“The hardest part of a patent is getting someone interested in it, in marketing it,” said Pepper.

Two years ago, Congress passed the America Invents Act (AIA). It represented a significant shift in patent law from “first to invent” to “first inventor to file.” Though disclaiming his opinion on the grounds that he is not a patent lawyer, Pepper was critical of the change, believing it will lower the quality of some patents.

“Now you file it real fast to be the first to the office. I think there will be a lot more patents that haven’t been thought out enough.”

Pepper lives in Malibu with his wife Denise and their three rescue dogs. After leaving HRL a few years ago, he created Malibu Scientific, a consulting operation that specializes in technical consulting and intellectual property.

As far as choosing a favorite patent, Pepper only looks to the future.

“My favorite patent is the next one, because that one has yet to be formalized,” he said.

Editor’s note: This article previously stated Pepper was a former Pepperdine professor. He is a former adjunct professor.