Written by Carel Smit, a former patent attorney and entrepreneur, now author and speaker dedicated to IP awareness and education. More of his writing can be found at carelsmit.com.

As a patent attorney, I love my job of helping entrepreneurs and companies protect their intellectual property (IP). But there’s one problem: at cocktail parties people want to know what I do for a living and I‘m usually hesitant to delve into it without a few martinis sloshing around inside me, or them.

I’ve considered pretending that I’m a poet or a helicopter pilot or a landmine disposal expert, which at least is a thing with a name that says what you actually do on a daily basis and which can lead to all sorts of interesting conversations from there. The best I can do is to tell them that I protect people’s cool new ideas and help my clients leapfrog competitors or, at the very least, build massive barriers to entry to help shore up their business. In a nutshell, I work to create near-instant value in my client’s startups, built entirely on their creative outputs.

The best way I can describe what I do is by telling the story of how I used my IP knowledge to start up a medical devices venture when I took a break from patent law many years ago. It’s a story of how I worked on an idea for a revolutionary new medical device with three co-founders, where we ended up making and selling our wound healing technology in more than a dozen countries on four continents within a few years. And the success of all of this was based squarely on incrementally protecting our creative output – our IP – in a very strategic way.

We were, essentially, clueless when it came to setting up a new med tech company. But we followed the steps of identifying, protecting, and exploiting our IP and that allowed us to go head-to-head against much larger competitors.

Here’s how it played out…

In the early 2000s, I had qualified as a patent attorney, but I realised I needed a break after a hard few years of qualifying exams and climbing the ‘Big Law’ ladder. I decided to quit practicing patent law and to return to the laboratory to do a PhD based on research that I had started during my master’s degree years earlier, prior to becoming a patent attorney. 

There was one promise that I made to myself: now that I had – ostensibly - quit IP for good, I would investigate and pursue every single business opportunity that came my way while I was doing my PhD research. Looking back at it now, this was incredibly contrived and I should have known that the odds were stacked against me.  Most people only get one or two opportunities in a lifetime, yet somehow I was hoping to come across a handful of awesome opportunities in the time that it would take me to complete a PhD, all while sitting inside a lab.

But I knew that I had a secret weapon: my skills in finding great new ideas had been honed by working with many, many innovators as a patent attorney – and the fact that I had received some of the best training in the world on how to protect new ideas, brands, inventions, and industrial designs meant that I could get people to work with me to make something a reality without someone stealing our foundational ideas.

I didn’t have to wait long. A week after quitting my job and starting my PhD, I developed a neck ache.  Usually, I’d ignore this sort of thing, being a macho hunk of burnin’ love and all, but it was probably the stress of quitting my job and not knowing where my next paycheque was going to come from that made me actually do something about it.  My wife was fed up about me complaining about my neck spasms, so she made an appointment for me with her physiotherapist.

The next day I pitched up at a rather non-descript physio practice a few miles from our home.  The physiotherapist and I got along massively well and when she found out that I was a patent attorney, she said that she had an idea she’d like to discuss with me. I groaned inside, as patent attorneys get this all the time – much like doctors who get shown ingrown toenails at barbecues, we get pitched ideas at neighbourhood markets when people learn what we do for a living. I explained to her that I was out of patent law and would probably not be returning any time soon, but she felt that she still had to bounce her idea for a new type of medical device off me. 

I obliged.

Read part two of Carel's blog. 

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18 January 2018