CLS morning entrepreneur panel. Credit: Bobby Harl; ACerS.

The highlight of my Tuesday was the Ceramic Leadership Syposium put on by ACerS. I was particularly interested in these talks as I consider leadership to be a key aspect to successful individuals in both academia and industry. The highlight of the CLS for me was the panel that had been organized to give insight into the process and expectations of what an entrepreneur will face in bringing a technology to market.

The panel was composed of Delbert Day (Mo-Sci), Collin Anderson (Digital Innovations), Alex Arzmoumanidis (Psylotech), Jonathan Goodman (Synthesis Intellectual Property LLC), Lesley Millar (Office of Technology Management, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), and John Banta (Illinois Ventures). The first three gentlemen are successful entrepreneurs and each shared a unique path to their success. Jonathan Goodman brought the perspective of a patent lawyer to give some feeling for advantages and disadvantages to patenting intellectual property. Millar and Goodman work together but in different roles to help potential entrepreneurs decide how to go about starting a company, finding the right talent and ultimately the funding to have a successful venture in the small business world.

What I found striking about the interaction of the panel and the crowd was the interest in the upcoming changes in the patent laws. I knew little before the discussion got going—and know only a little more now— but having a patent lawyer there who introduced the idea fed the fire.

The most interesting discussion revolved around the upcoming change in the US to the first to file patent submission system. Specifically the discussion was concentrated on how the new system will affect businesses that may have been using technology before the patent was filed. Based on my understanding, and, if you go into litigation, I don’t advise quoting me, the law will state that if a company has been continually using a technology that is patented, they may continue to use it. This made many in the crowd breathe a sigh of relief as this situation could be generated due to the processes and technologies known as trade secrets that many companies have. To me, it makes sense that the companies wouldn’t want to patent these technologies as in the patent process it is required the applicant make the technology public. From a company’s perspective, this is giving the technology away even if there are the patent protections. To penalize someone for patent infringement, you have to catch them with evidence that that is what they are doing. Easier said than done in some cases.

A fun caveat that seemed to wear on this crowd had to do with the situation where a company could get in trouble. I pose the following situation: Suppose a company had been using a technology for 20 years, but stop for a while due to a low demand at the time or needing to allocate resources elsewhere for a time. During that downtime that technology gets patented. Some time goes by, and the reason for stopping use of that technology goes away so the company wants to open the production line again. In this case, the company could be liable for infringement. As a scientist, this seems ridiculous since processes are sometimes not necessary to keep running 24/7 until the end of time. Shutting a process down, or putting a technology down for a while doesn’t mean I value it any less. Nor does this mean I have forgotten about the technology and had to go find it again. I personally equate it to putting a tool back on the bench to be used later. I don’t have to pay for my hammer each time I use it, and I certainly won’t tote my hammer around with me for future uses. In the same way, if I decide to set a technology on hold for a bit, it doesn’t seem to follow that if someone else decides to create a patent in the meantime negates my ability to use the technology. I believe this could be argued in court, but again, a lawyer I’m not.

This is just a small part of all the discussion, and Jonathan did a great job becoming the room’s lawyer. Entrepreneurship is an exciting business to go in, but I have to say if you’re thinking about it I recommend one of the first things you should do is find a good lawyer if you aren’t one. I’m not saying you’ll need one, but it doesn’t hurt to have one to help with some of these potential sticking points.