Science and law connect in campus collaboration

July 25, 2012

Have you ever wondered how scientists decide which problems to work on or what inventions to develop?

In addition to curiosity and inspiration, intellectual property can be a key factor, especially if researchers are interested in commercializing their work.

Fortunately, student attorneys at the University of Wisconsin Law School's Law and Entrepreneurship (L&E) Clinic are skilled at helping scientists focus their work by identifying pre-existing publications and patents.

"Researchers say, 'I have an interesting idea, should I develop it by using Route A or Route B?'" says Lindsey Thompson, a third-year law student and L&E Clinic student attorney. "They come to us so we can tell them what has been patented, and they can decide how to more strategically use their time."

To increase its involvement in biotechnology, the L&E Clinic recently partnered with the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC), which has facilities at UW-Madison and Michigan State University. The center's researchers at both institutions have already taken advantage of the clinic's services to help develop cutting-edge bioenergy technologies.

"The services we provide to the GLBRC would normally cost them tens of thousands of dollars," says Thompson, who was recruited by the clinic to work on GLBRC research based on her background in molecular biology and genetics. "Fortunately, the partnership benefits both groups: L&E Clinic student attorneys are able start building their legal experience years before their colleagues, and all work is overseen by supervising attorneys or reviewed by outside counsel to ensure the student attorneys are providing the best legal work possible."

By working with one of the clinic's 15 student attorneys to generate a "freedom to operate analysis," GLBRC scientists can visualize a research landscape in terms of what is known and unknown, and what areas are open to new discovery. With this information, researchers can plan their work in a more strategic manner to produce results that are both novel and marketable.

With its free services available to the public as well as UW-Madison researchers, the clinic's clients include small business owners, entrepreneurs, and inventors across Wisconsin and the Midwest.

"We try to epitomize the Wisconsin Idea, because we take what we do on campus and deliver the same service to people outside the campus," says Anne Smith, a Law School professor and a clinic supervising attorney.

Brian Pfleger, a professor in UW-Madison's Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, is one GLBRC researcher currently involved in the clinic's process.

Pfleger's latest technology involves developing strains of E. coli to produce a type of bio-polymer which could be used to replace plastics traditionally made with petroleum.

While attending the GLBRC's annual retreat in May, Pfleger connected with MBI, an organization that is part of the Michigan State University Foundation. MBI specializes in troubleshooting and scaling up bio-based technologies to prepare them for industrial applications.

"This has really exploded very quickly," Pfleger says. "Bringing in the L&E folks was a no-brainer."

By working with both MBI and the clinic, Pfleger has been able to investigate commercial applications for his technologies while exploring the intellectual property landscape to decide whether developing those technologies might be worthwhile.

According to Pfleger, working with the clinic has allowed him to make smart choices in his research with respect to intellectual property without a significant time commitment.

"The biggest thing people need to realize in basic science is that many things are patentable that you wouldn't think are patentable and vice versa," Pfleger says. "You want to make sure you're getting the most out of your research, and that you're protecting your findings by understanding the patent landscape."

The clinic is located in the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus and can be reached at entrepreneurhelp@law.wisc.edu.

– By Celia Smith