Advice for innovators from an experienced entrepreneur
Editors note: Claire King, president of Pawtucket, R.I.-based Propel LLC, was interviewed to be part of a feature with other entrepreneurs. In the course of our conversation, she brought up a number of important related points that I felt merited inclusion in a feature on IP law. Her company is women-owned and run; it develops, sells and markets innovative, textile-driven technologies. Its primary markets are the U.S. Military and Fire Service.
Claire King is knowledgeable in IP law, but as an entrepreneur, not a lawyer. She had the advantage of working for a company at one time that had two patent attorneys in-house. “One, in particular, I got to spend time with picking his brain,” she says. “I asked him to explain the whole process. That helped me understand the landscape.”
Her company also does a lot of work for the U.S. Military. “Working with DoD (Dept. of Defense), you get a lot of training,” she says. But patenting is only one part of protecting your IP, and being a part of a Navy Transition Program has helped her to understand a variety of IP issues: “What to make public and what not to, the difference between trade secrets, knowing how and what’s worth patenting,” are among them.
“You don’t just hand it over to an attorney,” she says. There are patent attorneys who take what you have and figure out how to patent it; others will figure out how to best maintain what you have to create the greatest value for the company. “Sometimes that means you don’t patent that stuff.”
If you do subcontract work, it’s critical to have a good contract. “Universities can be the hardest ones, because they want to publish,” she believes. “My recommendation is you can’t do that because it compromises your IP.”
Under any circumstances, a good non-disclosure agreement is important for every employee and for every person with whom you discuss what you make. For that you need a good contract lawyer, not a patent attorney—who would probably be more expensive.
“Patent law is very different from any other way of thinking,” she says. “They tend to have a Ph.D. in some area other than law, so they specialize. They’re the highest paid because they’re so specialized. … The more you can learn about how a patent is constructed, the less expensive it will be. A good patent attorney will ask a ton of questions, in my experience.”
Another way to save on attorney expenses is to have a good record-keeping system. “It helps you prepare materials for a patent, because you’ve already described it,” she says.
It’s also important to teach employees what IP is and how to handle it. In fact, patenting is only one part in how a company manages and protects IP. “If an employee leaves, you need to be careful that they don’t take it with them,” she says. “They may do it by accident, they may not realize it’s IP. It’s a fine line between an employee’s skills, capabilities and the company’s IP. It’s a tricky situation.”
Her company recently hired a new IP firm that will come in once a quarter and stay a half day. “So they can stay abreast,” she says. “It’s like a time out in your business; it makes you think differently about where the business might go next and how we would align the business, based on what we should or should not be doing.”
Sources and resources
There are other resources, too, that can help an entrepreneur – at any stage in their business. There are resources we sometimes overlook: economic development services, IFAI seminars, and the SBA (Small Business Administration) has free webinars and seminars.
The only thing I would say is that I don’t want to make doing business with the government sound easy, but rather that in many ways it is a more level playing field for women. I still do industry business, of course!
She also wants to encourage women in business to look at government contracting. “The DoD (Dept. of Defense) is a fantastic place to work in because there are all these programs to get five percent women-owned businesses and they never get close,” she says. “The issues for women are the same everywhere, but government is an easier place for a woman than industry.”
Not that it’s easy, but it she feels it is a more level playing field for women. She continues, however, to do industry business, as well.
Overall, she says there’s “an explosion in R&D” in textiles right now, particularly in the high-end specialty textiles business. This includes people from outside the textile sector, as well as innovators within it. “It’s pretty exciting,” she adds.
Janet Preus is senior editor of Advanced Textiles Source. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.